Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Assessment and reporting, not more exemplars!

I notice with despair that systemically we are going through another attempt at defining what an A -E is for a variety of topics and year groups to help teachers accurately mark assessment. I wonder how long it will take "those in the know" that providing A-E definitions either is so cumbersome with detail that it is impossible to use or too vague to be of any real use.

There are good reasons why teachers have used percentage grades (and not exemplars or rubrics) historically to assist in judging grades. Percentages combined with basic teacher judgement has been the only valid tool for judging students A-E on assessments. The simple fact is that teachers gain accuracy in assessing students over many years and by teaching as many year groups as possible in their sector (primary or secondary). By watching students mature into more capable students, teachers are better able to determine the snapshot grade of students and judge what makes a student an A (in any given year) and what type of student deserves B-E or the politically incorrect and now defunct F.

The sheer breadth of the curriculum and the variety of responses by students makes the task of defining A-E for all topics in all learning areas a task that serves no real purpose. Teachers do not have the time to find and refer to these exemplars when marking nor are the exemplars accurate for a variety of socioeconomic sectors (yes, I am saying an A in a low socioeconomic area is lower than a higher socioeconomic area by reducing amounts until TEE examinations). Much of marking is viewing the material of the student, noting key issues and making a teacher judgement on where the student is positioned on a continuum. As more students are guided through to TEE (or yr 7 graduation) by a teacher, teachers get better at giving feedback to students with information that helps them reach their potential.

That is what teachers are paid for, they get better with experience and this experience (or lack of) should be valued where accurate and monitored and augmented by senior staff whilst experience is being gained.

( if we were being given EPW's with solutions for all maths NCOS then I might give a little cheer as a good use of systemic resources).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Idiot Generation

I wonder now that developmental curriculum has again given way to syllabus driven curriculum if we will look back at the current generation as the illiterate or idiot generation. A bunch of kids that have 'challenged' spelling, writing, reading, grammar and arithmetic. A generation where challenging oneself was only the domain of those driven from outside the education system or those lucky few with teachers with the ability to entertain or drive students through sheer will.

This being the case, will children that have been betrayed by a poorly implemented experimental education system be able to seek redress from the government in years to come?

We risk a lot when we keep children in the system until year 12 regardless of their want for education. These children typically do not succeed and do not want to be in the education system. Are they the stolen generation of the future, "abused" by being kept in a system neither of their want or perceived need (by either their parents and themselves) a system not really geared to their needs, in many cases the children themselves are resented by those within the education system as time wasters and do nothings?

Will we be accused of preventing children reaching their potential by not providing adequate measures to curtail disruption in the classroom? Should we be doing more to create optimal environments for learning? Is preventing disruptive kids from these "optimal learning environments" abuse by neglect?

As society becomes a more litigious environment and legislators are less able to create common sense legislation, schools could become a battleground for lawyers on behalf of parents and children, based on the expectations gained through unscientific reports given by schools in early years and via standardised testing and IQ analysis.

Are students that only respond to physical violence at home (and/or experience few real boundaries) able to respond to verbal chastisement at school? Is a teacher that hits a student on the arm with a ruler worthy of an assault charge? Can we better protect the 100's of teachers that are assaulted every year?

I would hate to think that negative questions become the focus questions facing our next decade. I personally would much prefer to be concentrating on creating a stronger education system, well funded, well managed and with willing participants.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Curriculum Council PD events

Curriculum council events are always attended with a healthy amount of skepticism. They have typically been fairly patronising towards teachers in their approach, devoid of usable content and fairly defensive of their purpose.

The most recent compulsory moderation was the latest shmozzle. The requirements sent to teachers during the reporting period were as follows for each course gathering materials for four students, an A, B, C & D student:

"Each file must consist of all completed assessment tasks that have contributed to the grade for the first semester unit or all tasks completed so far if units are being delivered concurrently, including:

• the assessment outline for the units/s
• the tasks/ task briefs/ task descriptions and marking keys indicating the allocation of marks
• a complete set of all marked tasks for each student (Including the Semester 1 Examination if one is used).

It is advisable that schools supply photocopies of the assessment tasks (not the originals). Where possible indications of the school and students name should be removed from each of the tasks and the student work."

This might sound like an easy task, but photocopying and anonymising 4-5 tasks for four students (up to 10 pages per task) plus a 10 pg exam, marking keys, unit outlines, descriptors is about 240 pages of photocopying and a fair amount of work at a busy time of year. Do this for two courses and it is 500 pages of photocopying.

Teachers would have appreciated knowing the requirement at the start of the year and then the task would have had negligible impact (as it could have been collected as the term progressed). As there is no moderation generally in year 11, these materials are not normally kept in the same ordered manner year 12 materials are kept. There were many stories of teachers needing to spend considerable time during the break gathering materials. This may have been exacerbated by a lack of feedback from school admin to teachers of requirements as information became available.

The task itself on the day involved 10 teachers examining the marking of fellow teachers and stating whether their grade based on a cursory inspection of the results of students. The process failed to some degree because 80% of DET schools were using the same exam (from the TDC). Thus what we saw was the same exam 5-6 times, we examined the percentage score of the exam and defined a grade accordingly (80%+ -A, 65-80% B, 50-65% C and 35-50% D) or thereabouts depending on the level of difficulty of associated assessments.

A better use of time (but not the purpose of the meeting as I was chastised by the Curriculum Council person at great length) would have been to swap EPWs, discuss timing and difficulty levels of the courses and how students are performing in the courses. I was told to ensure that I wrote my feedback down. I responded that I had been down that path before and would no longer spend time on unread feedback but she was welcome to feed back my concerns. I find my blog a much more therapeutic venue for developing my understanding of the coursework.

There were some key findings:

It was reported by teachers that there is major concern about students passing from 2CD to 3AB in year 12 as the difficulty jump is seen as more than possible for the majority of students (many students are destined to repeat the same course). Another issue has been raised that there is not enough "teaching time" for low ability students in the 1BC course which seems to be more focused on assessing past learning than having time to teach new material.

The Curriculum Council representative raised issues with the Saddler 3AB text stating that it was flawed and that the Westone resources were superior. I nearly fell over when she said that, as I have found the Westone resources near useless as it is far too investigative for my liking. It should be noted though that this may be my teaching limitation and a reflection of my cohort, rather than an issue with the Westone resources. The usability of the OT Lee materials were questioned by a number of teachers (although I like them as a supplementary text) and in general it was considered that Saddler texts were the preferred text, albeit you needed to be careful where content exceeded the course requirements.

There is a lot of confusion about what the TEE papers will look like and teachers are waiting impatiently for example papers. It was generally considered that it would have been preferable to have been given full TEE exemplar papers for each module before schools had to create and run courses.

My favourite issue raised though related to a hearsay Curriculum Council comment made by a teacher in the 3A MAS moderation meeting that the curriculum for the 3A courses is aimed at 30% of mathematics students as opposed to the old Introcalc & G&T course that aimed at about 10% of students. This raised mirth from the whole room of senior teachers who indicated that if this was the case, the course was failing in its objective.

As the most junior member at the 3A moderation meeting I attended, I did appreciate the feedback given by the more senior members. For this the meeting was worthwhile.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Board game supplies

I've been a fan of local stores, but paying retail Gamesworld prices is just ridiculous. I've recently made four transactions with out of Sydney and been very happy.

Battlelore was $160 at Gamesworld and $115 at BestGames , and managed to get Runebound (Second Edition), Race for the Galaxy and Dominion for $213 (about $70 each).
Tactics (just off London Court in the city- a little hard to find if you don't know where to look) is cheaper than Gamesworld if you are looking for a physical store in Perth.

There was a problem with Race for the Galaxy, Bestgames tried to rectify it, notified me and offered to refund my money or to wait another week. It was one game of three, I'm happy to wait.

The web based orders from Bestgames were ~3 days delivery by courier. They even offered me a discount when I wrote a review for them on Battlelore. Shipping is free over $100. Nice people.
There are others; (offer to beat any price), (that has Battlelore at $99, free postage over $85 and also has physical stores) are two I have looked at but not ordered from.

I like the instant gratification of buying and playing games on the same day, but a 50% markup is just plain silly. Shame on you Gamesworld, because of you I'll wait my three days by mail order.

If you're thinking of playing some out of the ordinary board games, is a good place to start. Days of Wonder, Rio Grande, Fantasy Flight and Z Man all publish great games.

Now to wait and order Arkham Horror, Steam and Power Grid later in the year.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Arkanoid Clone

Here's a basic outline of an Arkanoid clone, made by modifying the space invaders code of last week (it was done in a day!).

Click here to play.

Click here for source.

To complete this I had to use polar coordinates, bearings, reflection, complementary/supplementary angles, recursion and a lot of boolean logic.

The paddle reflection is not perfect and the game could use more levels. There is an issue with ball speed that I need to resolve. It doesn't work in other than 1024x768.

A link here to the space invader clone of last week.

As always, the games are written in Java using Netbeans. All of the game logic written by yours truly. Feel free to do use the code as you see fit.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Ms Gillard you are a dill!

Here's a link to the latest nonsense by Ms Gillard.

"It's not about raw scores," Ms Gillard said.
"We want to compare like schools - schools serving similar populations, so we can tell what difference the teaching is making."
"If you see one school going streaks ahead, that means there is great practice there we should be sharing.
"And if you see one school that is falling way behind, that means we should be doing something about that school because it is under performing and it can do better."

Ms Gillard - teaching is not the only factor in performance. Shall we also grade community support, funding, parent capability, parent education, family income, proportion of single parents, strong administrative leadership and support, an interactive P&C, effective behaviour management policy. It is not just teaching that makes a school good and these factors cannot be graded in simplistic socio-economic indicators.

So.. do we just teach to the test to gain good results and forget about whole student needs? If a student is not academic, do we give them the weakest teachers and reserve our finest teachers for those that bring academic results? Do we pander to teachers that only will stay if they get certain classes? Will the tables measure actual progress or focus on academic performance (if they do measure progress will they use NAPLAN/WALNA and ignore the basic timing issues that occur in low socio-economic schools?).

So I ask again.. what purpose does this have in being released to the public? To remind parents that the school they are sending their child to is not as good as the elite schools in the Western suburbs or the G&T schools in the state school system?

If we are only looking for improvement - release league tables to staffing and strategic planning. After all it is these two parts of DET that need the information. By releasing this information to parents you are seriously hindering reform in troubled schools. The students that the school needs most to benefit from reform just won't come.

If you want to release this information - do so when schools are well funded and outperforming private schools. To do it now after years of underfunding in the system and poor curriculum support is inappropriate. Unless of course the agenda is to close schools and sell assets. After all education is the single biggest burden on government (and the single biggest eliminator of class difference as we are all entitled to a good education).

It is just another teacher bashing that is on the way, with primitive statistical analysis used to try and correct schools in political time frames inappropriate to education.

I heard a suggestion that we should create league tables for politicians.. Promises vs actual over the past 10 years. Set up league tables for local pollies on how often they are seen and how many members of the public they have spoken to outside of polling times. Identify how many times they have spoken in parliament and made a contribution to government (as opposed to oppositional backbiting). How many times they have been seen doing stupid things in public. Then we could re-release this information at polling time.

Education has no place in politics and league tables are just nonsense, aimed to appeal to naive voters. I'd like to meet a person in education that thinks league tables are a good idea.

Only the best possible education for all our children is what matters. The rich should not be the only ones with access to the finest education. Education is the most valuable privilege in Australia and it is our way to ensure that all in Australia feel Australian and have an opportunity to succeed, regardless of race, religion, sex or any other demographic you care to mention.

.. and that's the way it should stay.

Schools becoming learning institutions

With the experiment of making schools "a one size fits all" solution for society's juvenile justice problems finally noted as a failure, schools are again focusing on their primary role - that is of teaching and learning.

Keeping students in school to reduce unemployment figures and reduce pressure on the justice system just lumps pressure on the education system. Teachers that enjoy teaching are rare enough, teachers that can enjoy teaching and teach the "unteachables" are worth their weight in gold. To expect all teachers to have this ability is to invite the burnout and low morale that teaching (as a profession) faces.

Here is an article on the education system pushing back on other sectors of the community.

We have to be careful not to push back too far.. or if we do, ensure that troubled kids have a path to some form of success. To fail in this regard is to invite youth to lives of drugs, crime, homelessness and other forms of antisocial behaviour. School has its place - that of a learning environment and once the system (justice, community services/youth work, adult education, health, local government) has positioned a dysfunctional youth into the mindset of being a student - then and only then does a school have a part to play in supporting the newly found learner - this is social justice - not keeping them in school to disrupt the ability of others to learn.

School needs to be a privilege not a right. A privilege available to all, that can be lost, and only regained through a level of trust and forgiveness between all parties. We need to reconsider the purpose of schools in the community. It's the only way.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Re-branding a school

So... here's a scenario.. a school is delivering great results, has a dedicated bunch of teachers, a strong management structure but a poor reputation in the general public. It is the butt of low socio-economic jokes. When you tell someone that you work there, they quietly question whether you are crazy or too stupid to get a job elsewhere.

I discussed this with an ex-principal of the school and they said that they did not re brand the school because too much work had gone into repairing the name of the school in the community. He conceded that the biggest detrimental factor to growth of the school was it's postcode. It sounded ok at the time, but when I thought about it the immediate came to mind..

a) we attract few academic students
b) the general public associates the suburb with low ability students and behavioural issues
c) there is very little positive media coverage (translated: none that I can remember) of the school

So as a marketing problem - we have the product but not the customers and are poorly positioned to attract new students. I went to school at Mercy College - the sisters of Mercy are a reputable organisation and nobody knows that the school is in Koondoola. They have 1500 students now and have conquered the postcode issue.

Why should we feel pride in names such as Balga, Girrawheen, Koondoola, Lockridge, Kwinana, Clarkson that have social issues attached to them, when the focus could be taken away from the suburb name and the school can stand on its own name and reputation in the community without the stigma of suburb names? Yes, a lot of work has been done in the school to improve its image and performance, and we do feel pride in the school itself - but a name is not a school, it is but one facet of its public image.

State schools as they gain more independance will need to face the reality of no students - no school. If state schools are to compete fairly with private schools for students (and not face issues like that has been exacerbated by the half cohort) then they must be able to attract students based on academic programmes and have methods to ensure that students under forced intake (ie. live in the area and no other school will take them) have a programme suitable for them that does not disrupt students attracted to promised academic programmes. Changing the name to distance schools from its location (where the location is seen as a negative marketing factor) seems to make a lot of sense.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Space Invaders

Here's a little space invaders program that I wrote on the weekend. If it doesn't work the first time, maximise it and try again.. I haven't optimised it for anything other than 1024x768 yet.. Maybe tomorrow.

It was written in Java using Netbeans and some free sound and graphics from the web. With exception of some of the graphics, database and sound routines, the game logic was all written by yours truly.

It has a high score table and multiple levels. It should auto load using Java Web start (fingers crossed).

I've been writing these games with the hope of starting a programming group of students. The basic ideas gained have direct application in mathematics, especially in algebra, coordinate geometry, functions, recursive algorithms and trigonometry.

Click here to play game

Click here for source code

Best of all.. all of the software used to make it was free!

Pretty cool huh?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Defining students

How students see themselves impacts greatly on their performance. Lately I have been discussing with students how I see them and what that view indicates of their performance.

I have been examining classes and defining students motivational level under four categories: disengaged, coasting, good and determined. Each category is defined as following:

Disengaged: a student that will only complete work under strict supervision or under threat of detention. This is an at risk student that needs further analysis to seek why they are disengaged (personality conflict, lack of ability, reduced prior knowledge, low self confidence, low self esteem, peer issues, home issues, bullying etc.) This student retains very little knowledge and has to relearn each topic on re-presentation of material each year if not re-engaged. Typically there are only a few of these in each class.

Coasting: A student that will complete work if there is nothing better to do. One that does the bare minimum to avoid attention of the teacher. If allowed to develop at their own pace will progress very slowly and have little retention. Typically this can be up to 4-5 students.

Good: A student that does all tasks asked of by the teacher willingly. Is able to answer most questions asked by the teacher but rarely will offer to answer a question unless called upon. Is not disruptive, completes homework, is enthusiastic and asks questions of the teacher when difficulties are encountered. In mid streamed classes this is the majority of students.

Determined: A student that attacks their work and seeks deep understanding actively. This student finds reward in the act of learning, is self motivated and can learn independently. These are the students seeking promotion to higher classes, those working at the level of their ability or the majority of the 'academic' students. The number can vary greatly from class to class and teacher to teacher.

By identifying where a student is and what to do to reach the next higher level students can set goals that would improve their opportunities for success in the subject. It has motivated a range of students to seek improvement and has given areas of discussion to engage parents with.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Work Ethic

I had a discussion today as to whether work ethic could be taught.

My reply was no.. it couldn't be taught but it could be instilled. By this I meant that work ethic is not something that could be learned from a lesson, it was something that grew in a person over time.

As a school, fostering work ethic is something that needs to be done from an early age. Assuming that kids will instantly start doing 3 hours of assessment and study in year 12 is a recipe for disaster if they have only been doing the bare minimum until year 11.

So.. how do we instill a good work ethic? This is what I have considered thus far...

1. Model it at all times. If students see that you work hard they are more likely to think that adult behaviour requires work.
2. Build it up slowly. Start with little things like developing an assignment in class over a number of days, analysing a task, breaking it down into multiple steps and creating a timeline for completing the task. Homework is another good way to do this. Start with 15 mins in one learning area, develop the use of a diary and start giving homework in multiple learning areas.
3. Recognise achievement. Praise students that show signs of developing a work ethic. If a student does well, explicitly draw attention to what has contributed to the result.
4. Tie effort to reward. Without the effort being commensurate with the reward students cannot learn to value their effort. If a students does the work and fails, ensure that the failure is identified as a path to success.
5. Group students with a similar work ethic. This will create demand for students to work with like minded students and create an environment of success for these students.
6. Teach self correction and independent learning. A key component of work ethic is when a student feels empowered to teach themselves. A student with a good work ethic will not give up purely because the answer is not under their nose! In maths this could mean asking a friend, reading a worked example or checking answers in the back of the book and then correcting mistakes.
7. Being punctual and ready to start (not five minutes after the activity begins).
8. Being prepared and having all required materials.
9. Showing respect for those around them by being focussed on the task at hand and not distracting others needlessly.

I'm sure there's more - as I think of them I'll add them on.

Point 5. is a bit contentious, but I am a little sick of teachers sacrificing good students to assist with behaviour management or to "model" the behaviour to others. I think if we actually analyse the usual approach of mixed groups - the good kid is the one who usually suffers.