Sunday, January 31, 2010

First Day of school tomorrow

All fired up.. lessons planned.. preparation done.. Let's go!

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I sat through another round of someone extolling the benefits of rubrics/analytic marking keys/explicit marking keys. There was no doubt a lot of effort went into constructing them, but the usual issues were there amongst the generic template.

Assessment is supposed to be Fair, Explicit, Comprehensive, Educative, Valid

Rubrics vary between too vague to be of benefit (fails the explicit test - makes marking easy but cannot be easily connected to assignment without 'dejargoning') or so explicit that most students can get an A if they put some effort in (fails the comprehensive/valid test - can a student do it without the rubric??).

The position put forward was that marking should be quick. I'm afraid I can't see how this is true. The only comments students read, are ones in red pen. If you circle where students lie in a marking key, they normally just skip to where the final grade is. Students will read every line written in red pen and ask for clarification of it.

This is where investigations today fall down a little. Typically we guide students through the investigation (so that it becomes more like self teaching than investigating) - but the other side of the coin is that students can't be expected to rediscover what mathematicians took millenia on their own. We need to find a middleground.

We have collected a wide range of investigations, categorised and standardised them. I must admit I have struggled with selecting, generating, marking and guiding students with regard to investigations and marking keys. It needs more work and thought.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

And the 2009 IOTY winner is...

Julia Gillard, Federal minister for education.

Julia is awarded the Idiot Of The Year 2009 for her potential to damage confidence in public schooling, her flip flop on league tables and her continued faith in the face of all evidence and public opinion that NAPLAN information should be made public.

Today her media release finally acknowledged that it was likely that the myschool website and NAPLAN data would be used for league tables.

"I’m not a newspaper editor but I’m a reader of our media and a watcher of our media and what I know is that in the past, media outlets have sometimes decided to do a big story on an individual school and call it a bad school. That’s happened already; it’s happened five years ago, ten years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. If an editor makes decisions to do that, that’s nothing to do with the My School website. " - Julia Gillard

Sorry Julia, if you provide the ammunition for producing misleading information, it is your fault. Media is renowned for producing sensationalist data and you are well aware of it - the potential for damaging schools rebuilding their reputations after poor government curriculum policy over many years far outweighs perceived benefits. State schools will close, pressure on parents to put students in independent schools will rise (for no academic benefit putting further stress on financially struggling families) and it will be the fault of your policy when the majority of people are saying this was a stupid idea.

"This has been worked on by experts and experts have looked at the Australian Bureau of Statistics information that’s relevant to that school and relevant to educational achievement. And through looking at that information, they’ve created an index and it’s the first time we’ve had an index than enables us to compare schools right around the country. " - Julia Gillard

A school's level of disadvantage is notorious to define (see the issues that occurred using bureau statistics for the ghetto allowances in WA). More-so the ability of a school to produce true generational change takes generations to measure. Where gentrification in an area is occurring, four years of lag will exist between when the census occurs and when SEI is measured. Furthermore it will take 13+ years for these students to start entering the system (although it is more likely the struggling school will be closed and sold) and it's likely the new students won't have a nearby public school to go to anyway. With data at least four years old, principals have changed, teachers moved on, the school is different to the index. This statement is one big furphy.

"Now we’ve got to be clear about this: being from a poor household doesn’t mean that you are somehow destined to go badly at school. Kids from the most disadvantaged circumstances can get great educational results but we do need to give them an extra helping hand to get there and that’s why this index is so valuable." - Julia Gillard

Ok, myschool statistics could identify some schools that need more help for disadvantaged students but why does this information need to be public (unless the idea is to use student results for political gain)? Why stigmatise students, teachers and schools? I have no argument that NAPLAN results could be used to help identify struggling schools, but why compromise the results by discouraging good students from entering the school whilst positive change is occurring and extra funding is available. Julia, you are creating a self defeating system.

Yet, has anyone considered that low SES students test poorly anyway and their actual understanding is usually higher than their scores. This is due to the averaged nature of NAPLAN scores. Many things effect the scores. Students "throw" the test as they do not value the results, have performance anxiety generally passed on by poor performing parents. In general, a lower weighting of importance is put on tests by schools due to a whole range of factors. Furthermore, test results are skewed by teachers wasting whole terms coaching students on how to answer NAPLAN questions. Topics are introduced out of sequence (to the detriment of students) to maximise NAPLAN results. The NAPLAN scores (if they are meant to identify low performing schools and help low performing students) are a poor measure of their actual performance!

Even when schools become earmarked for change, in many cases it simply will not occur no matter how much money is thrown at the school (and subsequent stress placed on teachers to perform miracles) due to dietary issues, birth defects, difficult circumstance, limited positive adult (especially male) role models, limited parental support, refugee cohorts, additional needs students, behavioural issues, alcohol and drug abuse, gang involvement, criminal behaviour, difficulties in identifying, attracting and retaining good teachers/administration, financial issues at home, generational endemic poor attendance, domestic violence and other such issues that cannot be changed by a school alone. A bigger picture approach must be taken in many cases.

Issues with current league tables (measuring student scores rather than career success, issued by The West newspaper in WA) is further proof that the myschool website is built on a flawed premise. A school can have near 100% of their aspirant university students achieve their dream (being the first in their family history to attend university) yet still be last on their league tables due to the cutoffs assigned to presenting scores (see current issues with 75+ TER recording in WA).

If the Liberal party said they would dump league tables, I would urge teachers to vote for them and I'm guessing so would many others. It would be a foolish Labor party that ignores this sentiment. WA was lost due to the teacher vote. Teaching voter backlash is not something to be ignored.

When public opinion becomes a tool for government intervention (and not the other way around) it indicates a government unable to control. Releasing NAPLAN information to stir public support for government intervention rather than just identifying issues and solving them, speaks of a government more interested in polls than doing good in the community.

Julia, if you fail to see the issues with this idea or are only going through with it for political reasons - you have to be an idiot.

You are a worthy winner of the IOTY for 2009. There was no competition.

Media release here.

Julia taking another potshot at teachers here (have a giggle at the stretched neck photo of Julia).
Myschool website here (but don't say I didn't warn you!)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What mathematics do students need before high school?

I was at my master's summer school unit and caught up with my high school mathematics teacher. We started talking about what was needed before starting high school in mathematics.

I knew the year 7 teachers from her feeder schools (albeit a few years ago I had done my practicums at both schools). The year 7 teachers were proactive teachers, and had started topics like volume and Pythagoras' theorem. In my naievity, I had thought this a good thing.

She quickly set me straight and said that these were easy things to teach if the basics were in place. Without the basics they were quickly forgotten.

So I started thinking to myself, what were the basics?

1. Did they have one-to-one number correspondence (could the children identify 1 with one of something, 2 as two of something so on and so forth)?
2. Could the children read the time?
3. Did children understand their four operations?
4. Did they know their tables?
5. Could they add and subtract one and two digits without a calculator?
6. Could they recognise basic units of measure?
7. Could they manage small amounts of money?
8. Did they understand place value?
9. Were students aware of order of operations?
10. Can they recognise basic shapes?
11. Can they identify uses of maths in their environment?

By the time I arrived at 8, I quickly understood her meaning. If students were able to do pythagoras, but were unable to recognise 4 lots of something was a multiplication sum then time was probably better spent sorting out operations.

These topics are easily tested by parents and school instruction can be complemented by a number of readily available books and websites.

Friday, January 22, 2010

BST - Bloody Stupid Transparency

There's a new acronym in town. We have the GST, the tax we had to have. Now we have the BST. The Bloody Stupid Transparency we had to have.

I noticed an article in the West that TISC had released statistics describing schools percentages of students that achieved their first preferences for university. The West (in typical media fashion) has then released this information with a bit of spin and gloss.

In this age of the BST, the inference is that if students are getting their first preference then schools are obviously superior in their counselling processes.

It is of course a load of complete nonsense. Students have an expectation of a TER score based on their school scores, outside of the top 5% their actual TER can vary substantially due to scaling (how their class does in comparison to the state) and a host of performance issues. Having a range of scores is a sensible solution to a variable situation.

If high percentages are getting their first preferences (outside of the top 5% where students typically are in courses where none more difficult exist), it actually indicates poor student counselling. Students should be aiming to reach for the sky, not just set their goals on the safe options.

The main issue analysing 1st preference data is that this form of transparency in a competitive market encourages schools to dumb down student expectations to promote the school "1st preference" success and subsequent positive publicity (or prevent negative publicity).

Again the statistics are being presented in a primitive fashion with no real causal effect established indicating whether students are better prepared or should have actually aimed higher.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Smacking is good for children under 6

Here's a non-PC article quoting research that smacking (not abuse of) young children is beneficial. 2600 children were sampled and it showed that smacked children under 6 were more likely to perform well at school, perform volunteer work and aspire to university.

To all those from the smacking generation, finally some research that shows smacking might be ok after all.

Being a dad with an eleven month old, I think I still have some serious reservations :-)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Advice for kids in a new year


So it's a new year.. new teachers.. new situations.

What can a student do to fare well in a new year.

1. Come with a great attitude.

I don't mean suck up. Mainly I mean come ready to work. A new teacher has no expectations of you, even if you have had them in a previous year or have known another sibling. If you are willing to work, you will be noticed. If a teacher sees that you are working hard, and need some extra help, they will always be more willing if they can see if you have tried.

2. Follow instructions and come prepared.

This seems obvious, but a faster way is not always the better way in mathematics. If you can lay your work out properly from an early age, it's a skill you don't have to learn in year 11. Neatness is something people attribute to braininess (don't ask me why) - but don't let this be an excuse to be slow! ..and don't waste time asking for materials that could be spent working!

3. Sit with people you can work with

If you get to seat yourself, then stay with people you can work with. It can be hard, and sometimes you will need to have a quiet word with the teacher to move you elsewhere. Good students are the people that can help you when you are stuck and the teacher is with someone else that needs help. Remember to help others as what goes around...

4. The teacher is on your side unless..

Teachers are not in it for the money. They get a buzz out of seeing you learn. If you prevent others from learning you are killing their buzz. Expect to get squashed.

5. Be on time and prepared

Being on time is more than being at class when the bell goes. Homework arrives on time. Assignments arrive on time. If you know multiple assignments are due at the same time, spend some time in the library and miss that of so important TV show or MSN.

6. Do your best

Don't loaf. Ability will only take you so far, at some point you need to learn a good work ethic. It's easy to coast. Find ways to stay motivated. Race yourself. Try and get more correct answers next time. See how far you can get without asking the teacher a question. Use notes and worked examples given by the teacher. Make your next test the best result ever.

7. Failure is the path to success.

If you fail, don't give up, see it as learning what not to do. When you fail you learn about what you do not know. This is important. Identify what it is you need to learn and when you get an opportunity find out how to do it. Always, always, always do your corrections after assessment.

8. Read ahead.

Read the text book before school starts. Understand as much as you can. Know what you need to ask the teacher about. If you already know the basic stuff, it will give you time to learn it in more depth during class and with the help of the teacher.

9. Leave the playground in the playground.

Get used to putting your mind in work mode when you enter a classroom. Walking into a classroom high fiving and calling out to friends as you walk in (normally late) is a sure way to get on the wrong side of a class and teacher.

That's it!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Misleading league tables

Today is a sad day. A whole year's effort that can be summed up by a parent saying our results based on league tabled published in the West are in the bottom four in the state. This will discourage parents from entering kids in our school, in a year where getting kids is tough due to the half cohort.

Yet, if I go on last years experience, each of the kids listed as sitting four or more TEE subjects, that wanted university entry, will be in university next year or will have deferred for the following year.

For some they will go through the front door and it is a fantastic achievement whether it is with a 60 TER or 99.5 TER. Students reaching their goals is where our focus should be. They have made it with little parental support, limited schooling, some with ESL backgrounds and with a host of social issues.

For some, they are the first students to graduate year 12 in their families. For others, just the opportunity to try for university is an achievement for this generation - a goal which may still eventuate through a uni entrance programme or other 'back door' programme.

At least the independent schools stood up and said the publishing of these tables was wrong.. It's a pity the department and our politicians still don't accept that these tables give a false representation of what is happening post school.

Misleading and a poor use of statistics.

Here is our state Minister's recent comment on the topic. It credits teachers with using a range of assessment to assist in teaching a child and recognises that change is required but does not recognise the damage caused by releasing data that ignores this information!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Headlines rather than journalism

The poor journalism at Channel 7 continues with a sensationalist report aimed at placing doubt on teacher quality by drawing conclusions from statements that were not causal.

The headline stated that teacher quality was the main reason for state school improvement, whereas Neil Hunt (the principal of Churchlands SHS) stated that teacher improvement programmes were a major factor. A poor quality teacher cannot improve, teacher quality has little to do with the quality of improvement programmes.

Sharon ONeil called for schools to closely examine student statistics. This also is not a statement about teacher quality. Underlying this statement is the fact that lower student input in year 7/8 means that lower student output in year 12 is also likely. Where state schools competed outside of the big five with competitive entry (Perth Mod, Churchlands, Rossmoyne, Shenton, Willeton) then there is something very good going on in those schools and they should get a pat on the back (Belridge, Duncraig etc.).

Should we fire a new teacher because they are gaining experience? Should only teachers with experience teach at higher levels? Is a C result for a class of disaffected kids worse than an A result in a talented and motivated class in a green leafy? How do we measure quality and their results? Teacher quality is not a quantifiable measure of a school.

Furthermore, I suppose the media thinks that saying it's the best achievement in years is help but it is disingenuous if you then immediately show that state schools are performing worse than private and independent schools - they have re-inforced the gap especially if connections to catholic and SES status are not also drawn. Sensationalist, with little purpose and damaging to the sector. A report completely lacking journalistic integrity.

If the media continues to bash state schools then we can't expect to close the gap to the private sector. We ask a lot of low SES kids, when they compete with kids with strong educational backgrounds. To compete effectively we need to attract more middle class kids that have clear examples of the benefits of an education.

I understand that some level of criticism and improvement must be publicised for parents to again get confidence in the public system, but we have to be careful in its implementation and remember that the core of the issues faced are as a result of poor government management, planning and implementation over a long period of time (especially during the OBE implementation). To scapegoat teachers as requiring "quality" improvement (inferring that teachers in general lack quality without stating whom, what or how it will be fixed), damages the integrity of the system and does not attempt to address the underlying issues causing the fall in standards.

For state schools to improve they need to attract the full range of students, not just those that can't afford private education. If the current trend continues, most state schools will become part of a safety net, ending in continued inequity for low SES families.

For the profession to increase in status and output, we need to acknowledge the good work done, manage improvement where necessary and ensure applicants have the capability and training to do a good job. I'll leave it to the experts to manage how these changes can be brought into effect.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Combinations & Permutations on the CAS Classpad330

The factorial(!) button is found in the soft keyboard under the abc tab (hit the up arrow next to 'z' and the '1' turns into a '!' (like with a computer keyboard). It's probably worth looking for (or making) an eActivity to speed it up a little.

Going through the first two 3C exercises in Saddler, the easiest way I've found to use the calculator is to open the softkeyboard, press cat tab, scroll to N (using the alphabet at the base of the softkeyboard), highlight nCr, press INPUT and seperate the n & r values with a comma from the hard keyboard.

(Update 1/2/2009): One of my students found another way via softkeyboard->mth tab-> calc->nCr which is a lot simpler and nPr is also there!

When you need to use multiple functions just rehit the INPUT button with nCr still highlighted. Completed the whole of 3C Ex 1A & B with a combination of no calculator and this function.


I don't have my calculator books here, so this will have to do until I get back to school.

Here's a link to an index of other CAS calculator posts.

Expectations of low SES students

Low expectation is something that can be easily reinforced. It can be environmental (like praising effort instead of achievement), it can be by omission (such as not making information public that would promote academic behaviour), it can be through antisocial behaviour (such as allowing bullying of academic kids) or peer associated pressures (such as girls not wanting to appear smart).

The challenge for the community, schools, teachers and parents is to prevent these negative re-enforcers.

I ask parents of friends how their students are doing and they have no idea whether they are good enough to attempt university. I get comments like - "they're getting level 'x' whatever that means - the comments from teachers are always very positive!". Parents can help motivate students without accurate information about their student. Our PC reports are doing them a disservice.

I asked lower school students how many of our students make it to university each year. The predominant response was zero to four students. The actual number is between 20 and thirty or nearly 2/5 of the cohort that stays until year 12.

The majority of students, at year 8/9, actually think that university is unobtainable. The scarier fact was in a middle school environment middle school teachers rarely teach upper school classes and can't recognise the students that need to be informed, coached and supported into university pathways.

When I asked yr 10/11 students, "What classroom scores were needed to enter university?", they answered 80+. This is not only an unrealistic target for many students but also plainly wrong, it is far lower for the majority of courses.

When I sat with teachers and we looked at standardised testing scores and sought to identify potential yr 9 students for university pathways, no-one (including me) had any idea what we could call a benchmark score before considering student attitude, school results and work ethic to start the process of identifying university bound students. We will figure it out more accurately over a number of years (if tests are kept standard) because we are interested but what of the teachers that are classroom cohort focused instead. They will rediscover similar information by the end of the year.

I start my masters this week (all going well) and the broad topic I have chosen to investigate is: "What tools are available to identify university bound students, what programmes are available to guide students into university and how effective are they for low socio-economic students?"

If you have any ideas, I would love to hear about them and include them in my research. I look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

New Games in 2010

I've been playing a few new games this year that have been great fun.

Twilight Struggle is a great two player game that focuses on the events of the cold war. The US and the USSR fight for influence throughout the world in order to gain supremacy. Each game takes about two hours, so I'm not sure about implementation in the classroom, but we're addicted and have been playing for a couple of hours each night. Twilight Struggle is published every couple of years by GMT games and was about $60 pre-ordered over the web.

Three quick games that are great for the classroom are from Fantasy Flight games Silver Line series - Citadels, Condotierre and Colossal Arena. Citadels is a great game for up to 5 (after five it becomes a bit slow), easy to learn and has a great element of backstab and competition. Condotierre is a game about medieval/crusader Italy, where players fight for control of emerging city states. It has a really dinky board but has some real meat in the gameplay that is accessable to students. Colossal Arena is the surprise of the three as the betting mechanic and card flow develops as the game is played. All three of these games can be taught in minutes and promote consideration of strategy for future games. They have a real magnetic quality. Each can be picked up for under $40 online.

Anyone that has played 500 and #$%hole knows that trick and bluff based paired card games can be engaging, strategic and addictive. Tichu (supposedly played by 600 million chinese players every day) is no exception. It has a weird flow and is seemingly random until new strategies emerge the more it is played. I played it with 500 players that were very critical, but I would love to play this more with people that have a more open mind to exploring this game. A tichu deck can be created from a normal deck (and marking up four special cards mahjong, phoenix, dog and dragon). The rules can be found online.

I had a quick game of Sorry Sliders ($15 at Toys r Us) which is a great little dexterity game. Similar to the ending in ludo, players try to reach the end of their target and other players try to eliminate them. It's a great game for the end of a small class or for kids 7-12 on a rainy day.

I found a great new online store - A weird name but he does have a lot of unusual and hard to get games. Ordering was simple and delivery was fast. I was impressed.