Saturday, May 30, 2009

A different model for success for state schools

Permanency has always been a key goal in state schools with teachers falling into permanent positions and then staying in the same school for 7-10 years, perhaps reaching long service leave and seeking a new school.

Stability, one would think, would be a key advantage over the private sector. I would suggest that it is the exact opposite. What tends to happen is that schools in adjacent suburbs function like teachers in classrooms. Many not knowing what is going on in the school/classroom next door.

Another key advantage would be the non competitive nature of schools is of a reasonable distribution of students, with students being part of catchments removing competition between state schools. In the private sector it is counterproductive to assist neighbour schools find talented students as they are potential customers. Yet in state schools we find it is common practice to poach students (and thus lower a school's potential results) either through systemic planning (eg. G&T schools) or through informal discussions with year 7 groups across catchments.

I think that increasing the rotation of teachers in schools within a district would solve this problem. Teachers would be attached to districts rather than schools and key teachers (level 3 CT's perhaps) used as troubleshooters for schools that cannot reach benchmarks. Benchmarks would be created for districts rather than schools. Funding would be linked to performance of the district with underperforming schools being given proven troubleshooters to improve performance (Think similar to the AFL draft!).

This would promote common frameworks to assist teachers with transitions between schools (the new system couldn't work without them). It would also lessen the poaching aspect as we could distribute students freely between schools in the same district knowing common teaching methods were being used and that school based performance was irrelevant.

By being district teachers rather than school staff, needs based movement could be made based on cohort size and specific needs of schools. I imagine this was the original idea of central staffing. To maintain consistency of approach, pastoral, teaching assistants and administration staff would remain school based but would need to agree on baseline standards. Consideration could be made on how HoD's and level 2's are distributed and moved and on what basis. Movement of HoDs and level 2's would give graduate teachers a wider exposure to teaching methods and promote exchange of ideas and resources between our expert teachers. Similar to the movement of principals in the metropolitan area.

It would require a change in mindset from 'development of a school' to 'development of students for a district' - seeking the betterment of the system rather than the betterment of a school. It's a philosophical change of mindset.

I like this idea. I doubt many others would.


Often I bop about with Mackenzie when music is on and she quietens.

Today we were at Woolworths and she was crying...

So here I am at the checkout..

"We are, We are.. the fresh food people..."

Dancing.. Singing.... baby in arms...

What a rocking tune.. The poor checkout girl thought I was nuts and Kendra is still laughing..


6000 hits since July last year.. 750 hits & 499 unique visitors for May.. passed the 200 post mark... not bad if I do say so myself..

Hello to everyone out there !!

Career development & Half cohort musings

Today I was thinking.. what's the best way to get better early in your teacher career and do the most good in the community? Is it better to stay in one place surrounded by people that are supportive and appreciate your contribution, developing your own ideas with a small group or move amongst a range of schools, view what they are doing and use that to cross pollinate ideas whilst developing your own skills?

The half cohort is a critical moment in state school teaching in WA, with DET very late realising that it is having a negative impact on both school morale and student intake. For Ms O'Neil to release a missive saying the half cohort is being managed properly is to ignore the fact that it is not! Something that is being managed properly would not endanger subject delivery at schools, would not reduce student numbers over a five year period (which to my knowledge is not happening at private schools), cause further loss of teachers, leading to a loss of teaching knowledge (both about content, cohort, process and individual students) and further loss of confidence in your employer.

Schools are contemplating busing students between schools such that they students will have access to courses that individual state schools will not be able to offer due to small cohorts (this includes core subjects, Maths, English, Science and S&E). This means that students are taken out of their social settings, have reduced access to their teachers, lose contact time due to travel. Teachers lose access to certain courses for periods of time, have to teach more often across learning areas, have to teach subjects with gaps or years between offerings (eg. 3A subjects offered in 2010 & 2011 at one school, would move to another school for 2012 & 13), teachers may have to flit between schools with all the associated issues with managing split shifts, marking, load and travel time (equivalent to moderation issues 8-12 all subjects, all year round). Schools have to manage timetabling across multiple schools reducing the flexibility for change and development, manage attendance, manage the different acceptable behaviours/pastoral care, the consistency of assessment requirements and manage differing academic, literacy and numeracy standards.

Other options include merging 8/9, 9/10, 10/11, 11/12 classes.

There is more potential for students to fall through the cracks; it is an awful lot to deal with.

Subjects with low numbers (typically academic subjects such as maths specialist, physics, chemistry, lit, politics, history, economics), drawcards for students when selecting schools, all of a sudden may not be offered by a school unless under the busing students model (parents will really need to read the fine print!).

Busing students could be positive especially when tied to more options for students - with adjacent schools specialising in areas such as aeronautics, dance, LOTE, drama, specialist science courses, maths enrichment, sporting initiatives, computing, shed work, VET courses and the like that could not normally be offerred in a single school of 400-700. My concern is when schools are diminishing their offerings rather than enhancing them. Perhaps restricting busing to non core subjects and limiting it to one/two afternoons a week is the commitment that could be made by DET to limit potential issues. MESS teachers would need to take an option/specialist class or have all their DOTT at once. Anyone with VET courses at schools knows the timetabling issues caused by kids being out for half or whole days. Running specialist courses over schools is something that could have been done without the half cohort issue which leads me to think that more than likely it has already been tried with limited success.

There are other potential indirect benefits: in small schools, class sizes of 5-6 are more difficult to develop cooperative learning opportunities; it is also more difficult to instill some level of competition between students; (and the big one) these classes are more difficult to justify in terms of cost per student. Courses that may only be offered occassionally based on demand may be able to be offered consistently under a busing model.

So... going back to my original question, in amongst all this uncertainty, what is the best option for doing good in the community and developing my teaching skills? Sadly, it could be the private system for the first time in two years, especially with my family on one income and having a temperament like mine that needs a level of stability. I'll continue to think it through and seek more of the positives in my current situation as I love working in the state school system otherwise.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Exam Time

My students are primed for their exams, have completed their practice and been given time to revise. They have completed the content designed for them and are busily refreshing their minds with the content.

They say they're not ready...
They say that they will forget it all...
They say that they can't remember.

... despite all this


We'll see. I'm tired and am looking forward to them going off on their exam weeks..

My HoD came into class today and laughingly told my students I'd get fired if they didn't do well.. In industry that's what would happen.. trainer no good.. get a new trainer..

I suppose teaching doesn't have the luxury of firing teachers in the learning phase as a good teacher takes a few iterations of fairly mediocre teaching before making a good teacher. Maybe we're heading to more disposable teachers.. It wouldn't surprise me.

My personality is more to just stand aside and let a better person take over than tell everyone to f&ck off and let me do my job.. but standing aside is not the fastest way to my skills getting better and wouldn't give my students the best chance of success (they know me, I know them.. a bit of support and I'll get the capable ones over the line). The question has always been can I handle the mediocre phase until I get truly good as I have always been able to do in past occupations.. Do I have the skills to get past the mediocre phase? Can I recognise the real vs the perceived consequences of my failures for my students?

I think for now I just have to take a big deep breath and dive back in.. If I get fished out and benched for awhile I have to just take it on the chin or bite the bullet and find something I am good at with my existing learning. When I make it.. I'll finally be a skilled maths teacher able to teach all levels of 8-12.

Who knows when that will be.. Certainly not me!!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Nature vs Nurture

Interesting article here outlining the limited effect of nature and how schools (and parents) can make a difference.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Content vs Process

Here is the first of (I imagine) many articles on the importance of teaching content in schools and the reemergence of the idea that developed conceptual understanding can only be achieved by having a baseline of subject knowledge.

It has always been to my mind counter-intuitive to request a student to "understand" a topic without having facts to scaffold that understanding upon. There is no use in giving students methods of learning information if time to learn the information is not given and valued. The constant devaluation of content knowledge vs developing process has lead to a flawed education system.

I have to agree with the writer that being a yr 11/12 subject teacher with a deep understanding of a course requires more ability than that of 6/7/8/9 or 10. These experts in their fields deserve to be paid more and gain recognition for the guiding of students at this critical point in their lives. It is high pressure work with success leading to recognition for the school and the making of careers for students. Failure can lead to pressure from parents, administration and (more damaging) self criticism and confidence depletion.

Having experienced now 7,8,9,10,11,12 there is no doubt in my mind that the pressure involved in getting students over the TEE line far outweighs anything in earlier years. I have utmost respect for those that do it successfully over long periods of time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mid Semester Exams

Yesterday I was asked why run exams in year 8 & 9.

I could think of 8 reasons:

1. To reduce fear of exams (students use the idea of exams as a bugbear for not attempting level 2 subjects.)
2. It gives an anchor to the idea of study/revision.
3. It is good practice for upper school and identifies students bound for more difficult courses.
4. It provides feedback on what has been achieved by individual students during the semester.
5. It supports grades allocated by teachers put into reports.
6. It provides a benchmark of performance from year to year.
7. It is the backbone of academic rigour in a school, short of doing a personal project (which is impractical in most public schools).
8. Students gain confidence in doing exams by.. well.. doing exams.

Then I heard the excuses and heard what was really going on:

1. Such and such is just rewriting the NAPLAN test (fine if that is all you have taught in Sem 1!).
2. It's a lot of work (it's our job!) for little return (see 1-7 above).
3. I have to mark it (well.. yes.. but we teach math, compare that to issues in English & S&E, we have it easy!).
4. The kids can't do exams (some can, and they are severely disadvantaged compared to the rest of the state if the first time they see an exam is term 2 year 10(think league tables, think school numbers people! No results.. no school)).
5. I can't write an exam (huh?? ..nor can anyone else, we don't know what you have taught, nor do we know the level of your students! If you need help with formatting we have loads of support staff and teachers willing to help).

There is some argument that there is a level of over testing in year 9 due to NAPLAN but exams and NAPLAN have very different focus. NAPLAN looks at the student compared to the student cohort of the state. The exam should show a snapshot of the learning and retention of the most recent semester.

I can also understand the argument that some students should not sit an exam. If a student has a learning difficulty or is miles below the level of the exam (and a special exam has not been prepared for them) then it makes sense to exclude them.. these are our 1B kids.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Subject selections

I had a call from my dad today who asked, "I've been told all along that your stepbrother is university bound by the school but I have his subject selections for year 11 and they are all level 1 subjects."

When I dug a bit further he had been counselled into 1C English, 2C Maths and some non NCOS subjects. He had been given not recommended for 3A MAT and 3A MAS and told that he would "struggle" in 2A English, 2A Physics and 2A Chemistry.

I think many parents may be getting suggestions like this soon where schools make cautious subject selections to ensure that only the best students seek university entrance and along the way maximise league table results.

This move from encouraging students to seek excellence and challenge themselves towards seeking subjects that they will definitely do well in is contrary to the human spirit (especially when many of the non NCOS subjects lead nowhere). When we seek the improbable, all too often we succeed as we have underestimated our own capabilities. So many students that develop late are currently thrown on the TEE scrap heap without being given an opportunity.

Worse still, many parents still do not understand that level 1 subjects (in general) condemn their child to TAFE and not university - with ECU now saying that level 2 subjects are minimum for entry to university. Schools are effectively moving the university entry point to year 10 rather than pushing students through the year 11/12 learning curve/ litmus test where they have a go. Many TEE students succeed/many fail but all learn about themselves from the experience.

Somewhere we gave up on our youth.. before they turn 16 we drown their dreams in politically correct statements about students finding success and designing courses suitable to their needs. Shoot, we can't even devise an assessment programme systemically that can measure their ability (yes, I am talking about the failed levelling experiment). How can we judge with 100% accuracy who will improve enough to reach university? We are failing the 5-10% of students (or maybe even more if we count those that benefit from the effort) by not making them try to extend to university levels - especially those without environmental or behavioural issues. We have an obligation to encourage them to try, extend themselves and seek excellence.

It always amazes me what kids can do when given opportunities and are taught to value them.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Another IOTY candidate

The next nomination for idiot of the year goes to Barry McGaw chairman of the National Curriculum Board for his statement "the new standards will clearly show what skills and knowledge a student should aim for at each year level, making it easier for teachers to identify student progress and to help them."

A co-nomination goes to Caroline Milburn author of the article in The Age that says "Teachers will no longer be the sole judge of a student's work, after a landmark decision by the National Curriculum Board to introduce year-by-year achievement standards for pupils. For the first time, all teachers in Australian schools will have to use the same achievement benchmarks to measure student progress."

We know from MCJ in WA and how league tables are used that standards do not make it any easier to identify student progress as variables that define student learning are (in general) too various to adequately define. The only thing that standardised testing has done has reduced many good schools to "teaching to the test". No test has a better idea of student progress than a good teacher.

Caroline Milburn you are just publishing sensationalist tripe, if history repeats itself, we will just be given a load of generalist edubabble descriptions and unusable work samples that produce unscientific and statistically unsound assessment. Not to mention that standardising results across Australia has minimal use or effect other than for systemic discussion (which has no place in the hands of the public - see below).

My rant earlier today on this topic on the Education Matters forum went like this..

"I thought that we had learned from the smartie chart fiasco [in WA] that standardising grades is an exceptionally stupid idea.

Student A is trying their hardest but has little support at home. They are in a low socio-economic school, have peers in similar situations and have no chance to compete with students from leafy green schools. So each year, teacher has to give them a 'D' or somehow find them a scholarship, remove them from their social peers and hope that they can handle the social stigma attached to being in a higher SEI school.

The student without a scholarship gets sick of receiving D's (despite their attempts at catching up and working really hard). This is the same student that given a higher grade would have caught up and done really well in senior school, be a TEE candidate and contribute to urban renewal in low socio-economic areas (this kid was me - which is why I am so passionate about the idiocy of standardisation in this manner).

It also works the other way around. Student B does bugger all in school, but achieves an A because they have reached the benchmark. Without the motivation to push themselves further they don't learn a good work ethic.. Two years later they fail senior school as they hit their ability curve and have no drive to fall back on. It is just such a b*llsh*t idea.

School is about excellence and doing your best - not about standardisation and "fairness" in grading. Anyone with half a brain can see the flaws in it. TEE examinations provide the cross school moderation and that is where it should stay. I fear though that the drive for standardisation comes from government fear of litigation and the need to defer risk to schools where legislation and procedure provide some protection."

and then again later..

"Standardisation creates the same issues under a different guise. It potentially dictates that I teach material that is clearly beyond the student capabilities. I have no problem with suggested standards nor syllabus (syllabii?) but I do have an issue where I lack the ability to modify it where required. To demand that I teach algebra in term 1 year 7 when my kids can't do simple operations means that I would waste two terms teaching inappropriate material. To have to fill out twenty pages of documents to justify the delay (I know I'm projecting here but I have some understanding of how bureaucracies work) would do my head in.

Whilst we are on the topic of standardisation, to give these same students a standardisation test that tells them they are below benchmark (translate that to dumb in kidspeak) and destroy fragile confidence because the test is effectively two terms early is also wrong. I'm not sure of the purpose of these tests other than to satisfy curiosity of head office and parents. If they were internal tools that we could use to gauge performance and modify curricula to suit I would support them - but as yet all I have seen is judgements made about students, niggling comments about teachers, and misapplication of developmental/environmental causes rather than teaching or intelligence based assessment.

Either we value the judgement of our teachers or we use standardised testing. To continue the devaluation of teacher judgement in lieu of creating a better system needs further analysis as I don't think we are doing the education system any favours by pursuing a course of teaching to tests and the associated pressure of high stakes testing on children. "

Now I feel better.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

3A MAT Ex. 8B Annuities and Amortisation

Ok.. AP's and GP's are now a thing of the past (what?? huh?? when did that happen - in 8A of course!).. we're now onto applications of growth and decay.. nope.. (we did that in 8A too.. huh?? what??)..

MAT 8B We're now onto Annuities and Amortisation - growth and decay with payments.

The calculator handles this under the Financial, Sequences or Spreadsheet.

Starting with Financial:
Once in Financial, select Compound interest.

n - represents the number of installment periods
I% - is the interest p.a.
PV - is the present value (the initial investment)
PMT - is the payment per period
FV - is the future value (the investment at period N)
P/Y - is the number of installment periods per year (how often a payment is made)
C/Y - is the number of times interest is compounded

Let's look at a simple problem say 8B q.3 in 3A MAT. Kelvin invests $620,000 into an account giving 5.8% pa. interest compounded annually from which her withdraws $50,000 at the end of every year.

a) How much is left after 10 withdrawals (N=10, FV=?).

Leave the cursor on FV and press solve (at the bottom left hand corner of the window)

b) For how many years will Kelvin be able to withdraw 50000 per year

Find when the account is exhausted of funds (eg. N=? when FV=0)

Leave the cursor on N and press solve (at the bottom left hand corner of the window)

N=22.52 therefore for 22 years.

If anyone can explain why PV is negative I would be very appreciative. I know from last year's course that it is but have no idea why.

Now Sequence:
This could also have been done through the Sequence tool using recursion
a) Tn+1=Tn*1.058-50000; T0=620000. Find T10
b) Tn+1=Tn*1.058-50000; T0=620000. Find n Where Tn=0

I'll leave the spreadsheet method for another day.

Here is a link to other CAS calculator posts.

3A MAT recursive formula, AP's & GP's

Those of you attempting Exercise 8A without students with a thorough grounding in AP's & GP's in year 10 will be scratching your head at this chapter.

Q1: creating recursive formula from word descriptions
Q2 -5: creating sequences (tables of values) from recursive formula in the form Tn=...
Q6: identifying AP's, GP's or neither from sequences
Q7-9: creating sequences (tables of values) from recursive formula in the form Tn+1=...
Q10: creating sequences (tables of values) from recursive formula in the form Tn-1=...
Q11-12,15,16,17: creating sequences from multiple previous terms
Q13: recursive formula using the term counter(n) in the formula
Q14: finding unknowns in recursive formula
Q18-22: Growth and decay problems

My recollection of when we did this in Discrete was that these topics were covered over multiple chapters. When attempting 8A students faced difficulties in that the calculator has some limitations. I can usually maintain 1 chapter per lesson but in this case I let it run over three lessons and found some extra resources to supplement the topic as it left many students scratching their heads. This was hard as it chewed into the revision time I had left for exams.

Things to remember for next year:
1. Present multiple examples of recursive formula for the same sequence for Tn, Tn+1 and Tn-1.
2. Introduce the limitation that the calculator (in sequence mode) can only use up to two previous terms in its definition (eg. Tn+2=Tn+1+ Tn not Tn+3=Tn+2+Tn+1+Tn). We wasted a lot of time on this.
3. You cannot move freely between Tn-1, Tn, Tn+1 and Tn+2 representations if n itself is used in the formula. eg. Tn+1=Tn +3 is equivalent to Tn=Tn-1 +3 but Tn+1=Tn + n is not equivalent to Tn = Tn-1 + n
4. Be careful with the position when dealing with growth and decay. It is usually much easier to define T0 (Tzero) and Tn+1=.. as the initial value and formula. Thus when solving for n, n is the answer rather than n-1 (which caused no end of confusion amongst students).
5. Make students do the examples without a calculator unless it states otherwise. A lot of time can be wasted trying to make Sequence mode do things it is not intended to do.

Sequence mode and Calculator usage (What not to do).

Most sequences can be done in Sequence mode. Some cannot. Here's how to get into Sequence mode.

Let's put in Tn = 2Tn-1 -5 where T1=3 (q.11 from 3a MAT). We are looking for T1 to T5. Press Type in the menu.
Figure 1.

You will notice that the notation to the text is different in that "an" is used instead of Tn. Ignoring that, you will also notice that there is no option for "an", only for "an+1" or "an+2". (Blogger can't do subscripts so just put them in where needed!).

In this case it is not such a problem, we can just transpose our equation to Tn+1 = 2Tn + 5 as n itself is not used in the formula; The given value T1=3 now becomes T2=3, remembering that we are looking for T2 to T6 now (which is really T1-T5 of the original formula).

So now we put in T2.. Easy no? NO! If you look at Figure 1 we have options for Tn+1 where we are given a0 (the zero term) or a1(the first term). No option for a2.

The Saddler text does a pretty good job of making the calculator look clumsy and painful to use compared to paper and pen.

Here is a link to other CAS calculator posts.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Me Tarzan.. You Jane...

Yep sure.. that's me big alpha male...


Went to get a flu shot today.. No man flu this year I thought.. No sniffling and whining about how sick I feel.

Anyhow, two minutes after the needle was put in (which took about a second and didn't hurt at all(really!)) I woke up on the ground. The nice nurse (who was a great grandmother) had to catch me and guide me to the ground as I was out cold.

What is it about men and needles? The nurse assured me that it was not at all an uncommon occurrence. I can stand in front of a bunch of hostile adolescents and win them over.. but can't overcome the fear of a one inch bit of metal stuck in my arm.

Next time I'll just take the flu.

Thinking back though, I didn't feel weak until I watched Kendra get her needle. I think the thought of a loved one being hurt is also a factor.. of course I could just be rationalising what is a pretty pathetic incident.

I still feel horrible.

And now for my maths joke so you can all feel terrible too..

If a five sided figure is a pentagon and a six sided figure is a hexagon, what is it when your grandmother passes out?

A Nanagon of course! (Not to be confused with a Nonnagon (an italian grandmother) or a pollygone (a missing parrot)).

Must be the residual chemicals in the system!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Turning around struggling schools

I read this article with interest about schools being turned around.

"The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values."


To not provide strong behaviour models is to invite failure. The ethic that work = results = success is not inbred in these kids by their immediate environment. Developmental programmes for these kids are inappropriate as they do not have a drive to develop.. we must first create this drive.

"Basically, the no excuses schools pay meticulous attention to behavior and attitudes."

I like that.. "no excuses".. and it is so applicable to our public schools. In our society, everyone gets to have their say, anything can be rationalised as true and the time wasted unpacking excuses is.. well.. inexcusable.

"They teach students how to look at the person who is talking, how to shake hands. These schools are academically rigorous and college-focused."

Under the guise of political correctness and multiculturalism we accept a range of behaviours that interpreted under this model is inappropriate. Whether this is right or not is not a question I can easily answer but as a nation we need to decide what is acceptable behaviour and then teach it. Teaching a class of thirty under this model would require some bending of cultural mores in order to encourage a class environment of like behaved students rather than a group of individuals. To drive these kids towards developing the rigour for higher education would be fantastic.

"Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as much time in school as other students in New York City. Students who are performing at grade level spend 50 percent more time in school."

I love the idea that those behind have to work extra hours.. how obvious.. if you're behind you need to do extra work to catch up, unlike our current policy of teach what you can in the time allowed which results in students that need more time to learn each topic falling further behind each and every day.

The sad fact is that creating a no excuse environment would take much commitment/courage and would create much heartache within the school community. I don't know if it could be done within the Perth environment with our inclusiveness of multiple cultures. It would be a move back towards creating "Australians" rather than a nation of multiple cultures. I don't think as a nation we have been driven to this yet.

If we could decide on minimum standards (minimum attendance requirements, obedience to teachers, zero aggression, completion of homework, minimum expectations of results before progression) perhaps it would be a small step to replicating the results found in Harlem.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Exercise bah humbug!

Over Christmas I stopped running in the morning. It took ages to get my fitness back to the stage of enjoying a run again and a whole heap of unadulterated pain.

Being someone that doesn't like pain and thinks that exercise is overrated, it was a big thing for me to get fit in the first place and rather unfortunate that I stopped exercise over the eating season. Hello 10 kg. Goodbye feet. My trousers are getting tight where I once needed a belt. It was probably time to do something about it.

My wife started hiding the chocolate biscuits. I had to do something.

Anyway, I had the bright idea to start running again.. so during the week I took out my running gear and each morning turned over and said to myself.. tomorrow is a good day to start again.

This morning I must have had some sort of brain malfunction and actually put the gear on and went for a run. It went great for the first 200m. The next 200m was getting tough. The next 2km was stabbing forks in my thighs and glass shards in my lungs. Unlike the propaganda for exercise (and consistent with anecdotal evidence of most unfit people trying to exercise), it was not fun, I do not feel good and wouldn't recommend it to anyone including the guy with a dog that poops on my lawn (well.. maybe him). Walking up the last hill, my legs were 200kg bags of cement and I could only breathe occasionally. When I finished I wanted to crawl into a small heap and moan at the moon.

What was I thinking??!?????

Will I do it again.. yes, probably.. like most addictions it crawls up at you and time to time demands that you again have a go.

Maybe I could just buy some new trousers....

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

One for Ornithologists

Was caught today using one of my lessons from uni. It is about drawing histograms and the following data was used:

score. f
1...... 2
2...... 2
3...... 8
4...... 2
5...... 1

It was quite funny then but not really appropriate for a maths class.

Being a know-it-all

Sometimes I read past entries and think that perhaps I said that a bit strongly, and what is an opinion is stated a bit too much like fact.

Well.. today I was caught by my own enthusiasm and after a little assessment have proof that some of the coursework was above the level of the students as I see retention of information from first term way below the level expected (On a scale of little recalled to perfect recall it fell off the scale in the OMG category).

As a new teacher, pitching classes at the right level is a little hit and miss at times (sometimes coursework is too easy other times too hard).. but oh boy.. this one was a doozy. It's not that the situation is irretrievable or that any real harm has been done (later learning will be done faster through introduction of the topic now) but it does raise the point that pre-testing and having the experience to estimate ability accurately is a real bonus once out of your initial years of teaching.

Pitching a lesson series at the wrong level creates a raft of issues. Firstly it damages the confidence of students. Secondly it upsets the sequence of learning and lastly it can cause behavioural issues as students turn off and look for other activities to stimulate them.

Being absent whilst baby was born hasn't helped either, as I may have caught the error earlier.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Literacy and the need for developing capacity

A common catch cry in schools is that we need to improve literacy. Each year the same old rubbish is wheeled out in the guise of cross curricula scaffolding, pro-forma templates and a bunch of clever sounding words that achieve little.

I think if we actually looked at what each learning area is actually doing, literacy is a common component that does not need to be explicitly looked at as a 'literacy' issue. Let's take mathematics for example and the current rhetoric.

Literacy Statement:
Gone are the days where you can teach and test a skill. To adequately support literacy in a school we need to implement literacy in every learning area. Texts used need to support literacy initiatives.

Maths Reply:
Mathematics is typically a text dependent subject. A good mathematics text typically has three components. Each section starts with explanatory text, an area where a student has the content explained - such as a worked example. Following the explanatory text is usually some form of text bank that identifies key words within a section and their meaning. Each word in the text is identified by the teacher and used in context to assist students expand their mathematical vocabulary. Following each bank of words is a section of practice starting with straightforward examples and leading to word problems that require varying degrees of English comprehension and analysis. Mathematical comprehension is verified against answers supplied to questions.

Literacy Conclusion:
Over time, whilst immersed in examples of the mathematical form, the student gains contextual understanding, developing processes and strategies guided by cues for usage. Students are encouraged to reflect upon the level of their skills through answer keys and response items in assessment. Students develop independent learning strategies through investigative tasks to extend their growing understanding."

At this point some people (predominantly non teachers and skeptics like myself) will go "what a load of BS". This is not "literacy" rocket science but just old fashioned teaching (no surprises here.. the maths response was teaching from a text with some testing).

Unfortunately a lot of the literacy movement seems to be just hot air .. a lot of documentation that outlines what we already do, with no defined outcomes or outcomes so unmeasurable that they are worthless.

When parents ask for literacy improvement they usually mean can my student paragraph, write a coherent sentence, deconstruct a problem, understand a text. These tasks are typically issues addressed in English departments as specific skills taught over five to ten years. In the same way we teach supporting mathematics for SOSE and Science, we need English to teach grammar, comprehension and reading skills to assist us. This seems to have been the first positive outcome from NAPLAN testing and the national curriculum debate.

The main issue with the literacy debate and to a lesser degree "the whole of language approach" is that core skills in English (and to a lesser degree other subjects) have been given a backseat to experiential learning and by distributing responsibility for learning language based skills we have watered down the ability and accountability for learning areas to deliver their subject specific content (and undervalued the real skill of English teachers). The value of cross curricula learning has been overestimated, with few realising the amount of work it takes to establish a working cross curricula programme.

As someone that couldn't write a paragraph properly until year 10 (when my English teacher forced us to write an essay every Friday afternoon last period for a whole year) I recognise that this is not a new problem.. but we have had 15 years since I was in school to identify the issue and pinpoint better ways of solving it than the current mess. When responsibility for written skills is devolved to many, responsibility for success is also distributed to the point often that no-one is responsible. Written skills (although supported by all learning areas) need to be the responsibility of English departments in the same way that mathematics is guided in a school by a Mathematics department.

I think that strong, visible and active English and Mathematics departments in a school are clear indicators of a good school.

We need to consider that developing capable English and Mathematics departments is not optional in schools.. it is a necessity and priority for success.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Why I teach..

There are times we wonder why we teach and today I thought to myself, why is it that I teach?

I know that for many of the kids that we work with, they will never understand why we are hard on them and push them to try harder.. why we argue on their behalf.. why we stick our necks on the line with unpopular positions in order to influence change.

I suppose it is because I was one of these kids.. and if someone hadn't pushed me regardless of how I was being a right little shit at times I wouldn't have had all of my worderful life experiences to date.

.. and I owe it to these kids to try and give them those same chances.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


This year I was asked to assist the yr 11/12 students with life skills once a fortnight. The idea is to give the students some understanding of the skills required to succeed post school. Last week was a course on memory.

I started out by asking the students to listen to 15 two and three digit numbers. I then waited ten seconds and asked them to write down as many as they could remember. The frist time varied between 4 numbers and seven numbers.

We then talked about different ways of remembering things

a) chunking (eg it is easier to remember 9456 1426 than 9 4 5 6 1 4 2 6)
b) rhyming (During the depression I felt fine, back in old '29. or creating concentration cards)
c) acronym (NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)
d) pictorial (see below)
e) Look Cover Write Check
f) multi-modal delivery (Hearing, Writing, Reading)

The pictorial one was interesting as it struck a chord with many students. I drew a picture with a guy jumping off a waterfall, a Teddy bear, some stick figures lying on the ground, a guy jumping out of a three story window, an arrow pointing down. Then I asked students to complete the picture with other images of the great depression. They could see how interesting pictures could help them remember.

We then talked about how getting information into STM was not enough, STM information decays rapidly. For information to be recalled from long term memory reliably it has to be input many times to prevent decay. We discussed that we could apply the number test to learning.. If you hear 15 points in a class but don't attempt to remember them your brain will just forget them! If you spend some time trying to learn and recall the information you will have less decay of information and better recall. Revision of the same topic multiple times over multiple days is important. (I really like Saddler's miscellaneous exercises for this in mathematics!)

Over learning was also discussed. I often say to students we go through three phases when learning.

...duh?.............I get it!.............. I know it!

When students are in the 'duh?' phase they don't have a clue and nothing makes sense. If they try, they may enter the 'I get it!' phase where they can follow the teachers and do some work independently. To reach the 'I know it!' phase they have to practice and experience a range of examples and scenarios integrating their knowledge with other areas of discipline.

Overlearning a topic comes after this when knowing when to implement skill or knowledge occurs to the point of automaticity (instant recall without thinking). This can only happen when a student learns the skill and then actively seeks deep understanding of the topic, mastering the skill to the point where they will never forget through constant practice well after the 'I know it!' phase.

Interference was discussed and how Ipods and the like can be beneficial if used to block out background noise (eg with a song that is well loved but does not require active listening) as opposed to a new song that would "interfere" with the learning process.

I then asked the student to listen to the 15 numbers again. After the ten second wait they again wrote down the numbers.

I was astounded, 5 students had all 15 numbers correct. I've run this test a number of times to test transferral of information from working memory to short term memory(STM) but never with these results.

Some clever cookies here!

Here is another article on the topic.

Alternatives to chess club

Chess club has always been a good way to get students (typically boys) to think ahead before making a decision or committing to a particular path of investigation. Unfortunately it is seen as the forefront of nerddom. With some students nerdiness is seen as a badge of pride, but students today are very socially conscious and if we seek to capture students with ability in lower years we need alternatives to foster this skill.

There are a range of alternate games, not as elegant as Chess, but have similar outcomes. The ones that I have been investigating are Caracasonne, Ticket to Ride, Portabello market, BattleLore and Small World.

The last two BattleLore by FFG and Small World by DoW seem to have the most promise as they are infinitely replayable (like Chess) but have a different level of appeal. The main issue I am having is that they require a permanent home as a game tends to take longer than 45 mins.

BattleLore is a fantasy war game that takes about 30 mins to learn and up to two hours to play. It runs through different missions and lends itself well to a leader board type scenario. The downside is that it is only played by two players at a time. This is the main factor I rejected it as a possibility for the entry point game.

Small World is different in that it has up to 5 players and takes between 40 minutes and 80 minutes to complete a game. Its humorous and requires thinking ahead and is quick to learn (less than 5 minutes)

We have created a web server and found six desktop machines. We aim to create a mathematics lab for key senior school topics. One of the kids is formatting the boxes. Maybe we could even use my personal cals for AOE or RON to increase a session size to 10-15 students!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Things going ok.

I have a niggling sensation that although things seem to be going ok, that there's something wrong. I can't lay my finger on it yet but I feel I've been here before.

My rapport with kids is going well, no complaints.. students engaging with coursework and some seemingly really positive results. Attendance is up, kids are completing work. No real behavioural issues.

The timetable is travelling pretty well with six weeks to go of semester one.

Maybe it's the lack of that "let's attack a problem" that I'm feeling. Usually at this time of term I'm trying to be proactive about something but I haven't found that thing that has school support. It's a bit of a case of do what you're doing. There's nothing really wrong with what you're doing but conversely nothing really all that right either.

My tens proved the "when you think they know something do one more lesson" again with distance between two points. They couldn't do it on Friday.. they sortof had an idea on Tuesday but by Friday they had no trouble with key concepts such as naming coordinate pairs, calculating distances between two points graphically and algebraically, labelling axes, plotting points and the like.

Students were liking 3A MAS again now that we had finished vectors and were finishing logarithms. The usual complaints about worded problems but they are slowly getting better.

Perhaps subconsciously I'm thinking that if I'm not being encouraged to push myself I'm being directed to have a look at my teaching methods and results. Maybe I do need to be more self critical.

My experience in teaching is that asking questions like this of peers causes people to question your competency, which is hardly a path to improvement.

It's a feeling of being a bit bland ...

... and I don't like it.