Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Revision strategy

This year has been a better year for planned revision. Courses ended on time leaving a gap where we could do some in class work. To give ownership of the process to students, we pulled out the syllabus and decided what would be done in class together and what would be done on their own.

For a change students have been completing miscellaneous exercises all year, which is helping considerably in reducing revision requirements as is the increasing use of journals to centralise student notes.

Next students were told to get their revision books and answer the first question in each section (to build confidence, these are usually the easiest). The OT Lee books are best for this but the Purcell ones aren't bad either. Then do q4 of each section, then focus on sections where students are having the most difficulty.

Next I did the normal printing out of exam papers. One of the other maths teachers provided this suggestion on how to use them that I thought was a vast improvement on the usual, "look at the question, look at the answer" model. He suggested for students to read the whole paper and identify which questions they could answer, then (before answering any question) go back to their texts and investigate each topic they could not answer questions for. Only then sit down and answer the paper. I think this is a great idea.

The 11s in particular have used after school classes in addition to revision processes to master key topics. Vectors in year 11 remains a draw on time and is something we will focus more on during summer school. This is the fifth year working on study skills and revision to bring a methodology to aid mid performing students, and I think we are identifying a winning formula.

I'm sure high performing schools have more structured and better processes in place, but these ideas are a vast improvement on what we started with.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Portfolio Pathway

Many of our students are on Portfolio pathway - an alternate entry strategy for students to get into university.  I sat down with our careers adviser this morning to get an idea of what was involved in portfolio pathway.

The bottom line is that only two subjects are required to be passed (one of which is English) and the remainder of the application process is based upon community involvement.  It is a challenging idea  I'm trying to get to grips with how a student that can't pass school will be able to pass university.  It must be working to some degree as ECU is pursuing this strategy to get low SES students into university.  I imagine that they are banking on the idea that students in low SES schools develop late and with bridging courses they will be ok.

The reason I investigated further was that statements were being made that teachers did not understand portfolio pathway.  This I think is true.  Teachers in weeks up to mock exams are in a flap getting students ready for exams.   These exams are typically worth 25% of their year grade.  Following this is an external exam worth 50% of their year grade (I know this is a gross simplification but it illustrates the point).  If students are seen as putting non academic pursuits first in the weeks prior to mock exams academic teachers will be asking questions - especially if the school itself is encouraging students to pursue non assessment tasks in this time.

The portfolio pathway makes the exams for the majority of their classes largely irrelevant - a minimum amount of effort (to justify WACE grades) is sufficient.  If teachers are told a student is now on a portfolio pathway, a student is better off doing community events to bolster their portfolio for university entry than study to the extent required of an ATAR candidate.

Furthermore, if a student is on a portfolio pathway and unlikely to be studying to the level required of an ATAR candidate - this has the possibility to effect moderation by producing distorted ordering in the grade distribution.

The idea that our students can do external pursuits and academic pursuits is challenging as the best of us would struggle to compete with students without external concerns. It was put to me "a hockey student going to nationals will not put aside their hockey aspirations for their university aspirations - they will do both."  I don't know if this is true.  Many will hedge their bets and put sport aside in the weeks leading to exams and ensure they have a future going forward.  Elite athletes may make this decision but otherwise it seems to me a strange one.

I feel for people that see school events as huge events in their lives.  As someone that found life to be preferable to any events in school, I suppose I see the opening of opportunities post education greater than the impact of any singular school events.  I probably overestimate the contribution of MESS subjects to roles in life because of their contribution to my life.  Without my Math, English, Sose and Science teachers I never would have had the opportunities I have enjoyed.  My desire for my kids to have these same opportunities (and more) is likely similar to opportunities found by teachers in the school using skills from non MESS subjects.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Interactive Whiteboard usage

I have an interactive whiteboard in my classroom.  It's a 2.1m wide Promethean with a short throw projector.  I was reticent about getting an IWB as I had one in the past and it was smaller than a normal whiteboard, laggy, difficult to see in full light, was easy to cast a shadow upon while writing and had little in the way of usable technology for mathematics.

5 years later and things have changed.  My old whiteboard was only marginally larger than my new IWB.  The lag is gone (.. well .. nearly).  The short throw projector casts a minimal shadow.  The basic software is more functional than ruler and pen.

I'm not singing the praises of Promethean, I haven't used a Smartboard or its software since my awful introduction to IWBs five years ago.  I can just see how it helps deliver my material.

I can step forward/backward through slides
I can draw axes, coordinates and lines with ease
I can annotate graphs (such as those drawn by Autograph) for regression/seasonality and functions work (with a little difficulty)
I can share and store successful lessons more easily
I can write solutions digitally for sharing for small group moderation
It saves a few dollars in whiteboard markers (but will probably cost more in power and projector globes)

The advantages make my day more pleasant.  The downside is that lessons take considerably more time to prepare initially because you have to think of ways to use it effectively, whereas those methods already exist with a whiteboard.

There is also a short term motivational increase evident in student behaviour (which I expect to dissipate with familiarity).

I am guilty of not using the IWB to its fullest, but after 1 term, it is proving to be an integral part of my classroom, being used in every class.

The apple macbook powering the board has caused some problems.  The obvious being the difficulty in running PC software (such as FX draw and Classpad manager).  These we're slowly overcoming.  A big advantage of the mac is the fast powerup.  I have a backup PC on my desk and the thought of waiting for SOE4 to boot is enough for it to be an absolute last resort.

The big question is does it improve the results of my students?  The answer is.. well.. maybe..   I can more easily use some interactives for aid in learning but I haven't seen any great improvement in results.  The cost to implement is around 7-8K at present which is not a huge impost (compared to some of the money the government is throwing around) but as an insight into department funding - it is more than the entire 8-12 math budget for last year.  I couldn't really use student improvement as a justification for installing IWB's in schools - there are more reliable ways of raising student performance than IWB's.

Implementation (after installation) has gone smoothly with good support from the school technician.. I won't say great support or he might get slack :-)..  Now as a mature technology, opportunities are available to improve teaching practices further and collaborate with a much wider group of teachers.

I would probably still get an IWB if I was given the option.  The collaborative opportunities are just too many to ignore and are relatively easy to implement, even if the student benefit is harder to quantify.  Reviewing student board work or examining teaching pedagogy in particular becomes much simpler and is more easily recorded.  Unlike 1-1 laptop rollouts, surprisingly I think I currently fall in favour of IWB rollouts.

Making best use of teachers

Teachers are required to complete a range of duties other than face to face teaching time. Assignments and tests take time to be written and marked, programmes take time to be written, lessons need to be planned for, revision materials gathered, student teachers mentored, behavioural issues resolved, discussion is needed between moderating partners, coordination required for consistent judgements of student work. The first three alone take much of the time. You can normally spot an overloaded teacher because they are starting to wing more lessons and reduce the amount of assessment done or are reusing materials without tailoring them to the cohort.

Classroom first was a policy that quarantined teachers from duties other than that directly required by the classroom. It was a push back onto admin. It seems that that push back is starting to unravel and DOTT time is again being used for a raft of other things. The latest salary negotiation seems to be wrestling with getting teachers to do more.

You can't get blood out of a stone. We have high utilisation of teachers compared to OECD countries (see here page 406, albeit more appropriate statistics exist). Better lessons, better outcomes are not achieved by pushing untested rollouts, extended workdays, ill prepared curriculum directives and larger class sizes. It's done with effective management, good marketing and long/medium and short term planning with strong leadership and good morale.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Teachers work too few hours

Bethany usually writes well thought out pieces, but I don't understand the reasoning behind today's West article. If the intent was to start another round of teacher bashing then it will probably succeed. After all, teachers work between 9am and 3pm, forty weeks of the year. What a bunch of bludgers!

There are some flaws in this argument. Entry cost is high, with a four year full time course with practicum times devoid of income and a high attrition rate during university and in early years of teaching. The level of individual responsibility is high, including responsibility for curriculum, behaviour and teaching methods plus liasing with parents, teachers, CC, admin and other schools to maintain teaching programmes. Burnout is a constant risk, varying with the level of admin and collegiate support. Pay is not in this case a simple case of salary divided by hours worked.

When I hear an argument about teaching conditions I ask the following, "what would you have to be paid to give up your job for four years and then... work with reticent kids in a public school?"

I think many think I am mad and perhaps I am. A few of my friends that try and consider teaching as a possible profession, fall down when they consider that they present for six hours in front of an audience in an interactive manner. Imagine entertaining and engaging adolescents for forty weeks. The breaks are not optional, you can't do it without them. It's recovery time.

The problem is not being overpaid, it's establishing a fair equity position for teachers. It's not a job everyone can do, and to keep the good ones, they need to be paid enough to re-enter the trenches each year and seek the best for our children.

Populist arguments supporting positions that degrade working conditions and teachers position in society is not the pathway to a public education sector that can compete and contribute to education in WA. It's the path to a society where income governs your level of education - even more so than today. If we make teaching uneconomical or where the salary does not justify the conditions, it is unlikely we will end up with many vocational teachers in public schools. It will just get too hard for too little.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Laptop rollout in high school

I've made a number of attempts to utilise laptops within my classroom. The first three times were fraught with IT issues. The last time was not, but failed to be more effective than a teacher directed lesson.

I discussed this with Apple distributors today and they acknowledged that maths was a difficult area to implement laptops effectively for teaching purposes within the classroom.

It's not hard to imagine why.

The input mechanism (keyboard) does not lend itself well to handling symbolic expression, from fractions forward. Word is clearly inferior to paper/pen in terms of flexibility and execution time.

Math is highly skill and practice based rather than research and report based. The time to find applications specific to each skill exceeds the benefit able to be provided by an active teacher.

I did identify some areas where they may be beneficial.
A) repetitive simple skills such as tables
B) statistics in conjunction with autograph and Excel

I found propositions put forward by the distributor more marketing based than based in productive high school teaching practices:

A) As an alternate assessment tool(recording writing and reviewing) to judge performance (unlikely to be done other than as a gimmick or as part of formal research).
B) To implement a programming class (underestimating timetabling and student demand requirements)
C) To implement problem solving investigations (I think this still suffers the symbolic issue in non stats based investigations - particularly senior school ones)
D) As a way to promote cross curricular applications (with large time overheads to set up with questionable benefits).
E) That the focus needs to be middle school as the application in senior school was more difficult and required follow through from middle school. (I agree but am still struggling to justify the effort required for such low utilisation)

The meeting left me questioning whether anyone had anything more than a very superficial implementation of laptops at all. The distributor stated about 50% usage was possible across all learning areas (I would hazard to guess as a wordprocessor in most cases) and my guess is less than 5% in mathematics. Given the ATAR exams are written, I'm not sure promoting typing over writing and editing/ re drafting over planning/writing is a good idea.

Some things have worked. Mathsonline has more penetration. Kids are more likely to have a computer at home. They can complete homework using the digital copy of the text on the laptops. Once networking issues are resolved I could put worksheets and notes directly on their computers. I can dump Khan academy files for their review.

On the whole I felt that we were looking for a market for a product, rather than a product aimed to satisfy a market, indicating that the whole 1-1 student computer idea is a bit of a lame duck. I think the government has been suckered in by the promise without having an idea of what it could deliver in real results.

Given my background, I want to be positive about this idea. I haven't heard anything to date that justifies $100,000 per year of taxpayer dollars per school thus far. I hope someone can show me where to go next.