Sunday, March 28, 2021

Performance Anxiety

Anxiety is a two edged sword.  Can't perform without it, can't perform with too much of it.

Understanding how success impacts anxiety is an important part of the performance anxiety picture.  Where we set the bar for students is important as it provides them with what sort of performance constitutes success.

One measure of success is achievement - this is where a student is able to do something expected at a prescribed point in time.  A student that can write their name consistently is an achievement in pre-primary, but an area of concern if they were still trying to do this in Year 4.

Another measure of success is progress - this is where a student is able to do something later that they could not do at a previous point in time.  A student that could not tell the time in Year 6, but can do so in Year 7 is an indicator of progress.

A third measure of success is a normalised ranking.  With normalised ranking, a student doing better compared to their peers longitudinally over a period of time.  A student was 5th in the class for spelling in test 1 but was 1st in test 2 and consistently in the top 10 for the year.  Achievement is measured for each test, progress is monitored as they move up and down the class ranking.

Traditionally schools have used normalised ranking to give students feedback as to how they are progressing towards year level achievement standards.  This allows students to feel successful as they measure themselves against peers and do better or worse dependent on effort (something that they can control).  Whether a child is meeting the Year level achievement standard is irrelevant as long as they are making progress with their peers. 

Movement to a national achievement standard changed this to having an achievement focus, and as consequence a large group of students would now encounter constant failure with D/E grades.  In extreme circumstances, students would also face failing assessment after assessment being measured against grading standards that they had no ability to reach to support the awarding of D/E grades.

This focus on achievement rather than progress increased performance anxiety and is currently at epidemic levels in schools.  Success lowers performance anxiety and anxiousness caused by the fear of failure.  If students only face constant failure then anxiety will rise to unbearable levels preventing progress.  It needs an outlet for anxiety to be released.  This is where we are today and it will take academics to prove this true with the benefit of hindsight.  

Should we set student success to be:

- achievement of excellence (eg. through a focus on Year level Achievement Standards);
- progress (eg. improvement in a skills over time); or
- ranking (eg. position in a class of similar students).

Should we frame this within and understanding of:

- Constantly seeking excellence (with an understanding that the bar moves with the definition of developmental "excellence");
- Always doing your best (with an understanding that continuous effort is required); or
- Putting in the effort where required (with an understanding that you can only do what you can do and develop reserves where possible).


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Closing the gap in student performance

 


The blue graph represents a learning curve of an average student
The red graph represents a learning curve of a student that has fallen behind
The gap between A and B / C and D represents how the gap grows between two students over time.

If nothing is done, the red student falls further and further behind the blue student.

To bridge students from A to B or from C to D requires a level of intervention - doing something beyond classroom teaching. Either focus on blue students and allow red students to fall further behind, focus on red students and slow the curve of blue students or differentiate and allow both to progress.
  • Students need to do more (not less) work to catch up
  • It needs to be focused on developing current skills required and addressing gaps in skills
  • Intervention available needs to be targeted to where formative assessment identifies issues and pre-prepared resources are available to address common issues outside of classtime
Streaming and Differentiation (typically applied as mutually exclusive strategies) attempt to address the issues faced by a teacher of students with different learning requirements.

One method of addressing the needs of both groups is to ability stream, putting students together of like abilities.  It can reduce the load for a teacher in a classroom by reducing what needs to be taught to a narrower band.  One issue with this approach is the low expectation/low ability bias - students that are behind have lower abilities so we should have lower expectations - thus learning is slower and below ability levels.  Overcoming this bias is difficult but can be done.  

Deficits of streaming
  • Tendency for lower expectations
  • Fewer positive role models/peer support
  • Re-inforcement of the difficulties faced rather than successes
  • Normalising absences/poor behaviour/low effort
  • Lower classes typically given to less able teachers
  • Transition between streams can be problematic (difficultly leap, unsupported during transition, infrequent restreaming)
  • Typically delivers to the bottom/middle of the class
  • Individualised support is not a focus (the focus is identifying work at level for the class) thus bridging the gap is less likely to address issues at a student level
  • Little/No support in Research to support an increase in learning for streamed students in average schools (Hattie)
Differentiation is a possible alternative where students are covering same topic in class but at different levels.  Rather than a structural/environmental change, this is a change in approach of the teacher.  This requires a higher level of teacher skill, organsation and discipline to do effectively.  Signs that this is being done:
  • Strong communication between teacher/student/parent.
  • Diagnostic assessment completed prior to each topic
  • Identification of gaps and remedies identified for gaps
  • Students completing different work based on ability
  • Assessment provided at multiple levels
  • Addressing students that have gaps with clear measurable strategies typically outside of the classroom
  • Requires advanced knowledge of scope and sequence of topics beyond year level
  • Safe learning environment where all students are confident to ask questions
  • Results of the group as a whole are increasing (fewer failing students)
It is possible to do both at the same time, but needs recognition that streaming alone does not address closing the gap between students - to do this requires going further than teaching bottom/middle of the class given and that differentiation when the gap is large in Mathematics is load intensive. That is streaming requires less work (class instruction is more targeted as there is smaller variation between students) and differentiation more work (increased variation between students decreases the effectiveness of traditional class based instruction).  Given class based instruction is the preferred delivery mode in schools, reluctance to differentiate can be considerable.

Intervention is the process of moving a student from the bottom curve to the top curve through action at a group or individual level (eg. from B to A or from D to C). This could include:
  • Pastoral support to assist in managing issues at home or incidental mental health needs
  • Tutoring outside of class time
  • Addressing individual needs within the classroom to increase learning beyond the average speed in the class
  • Catch up classes over the holidays
  • Work sent home to parents aimed at addressing gaps in learning
  • Acceleration of programmes of work
  • Changing focus of existing programmes to address student needs
  • ICT applications aimed to assist particular types of students
  • Withdrawal from options classes or creation of options classes to focus on Literacy and Numeracy or Extension (eg Period 25, Period 6)
  • After school classes
A major feature of intervention is that it is above what is done for the average student and is able to be stopped once the student has caught up.  This allows catch up (rather than falling behind) as students are still progressing to a greater or lesser degree with the rest of the class (as opposed to a withdrawal/differentiated/streamed model.  Students are doing more in order to catch up and once on the curve are able to stay on the curve as the reason for learning more slowly than the rest of the class is overcome and the intervention is able to stop and be redirected to another student.   Where it can't end with the student on the leaning curve without ongoing intervention to prevent falling behind again, the strategy I think it should be defined as differentiation as it is an ongoing need of the student.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

If I can't succeed, why try?

Where a child has not found success they will lose motivation.  This will result in loss of self esteem, reduce effort and create a cycle of failure.

This is true of adults too.

It is important that a student believes that they can succeed.  There are many levers that can be used to get a student to develop the understanding that they can succeed.

1. Provide work at level

2. Provide extrinsic motivation to seek success (such as rewards for effort during learning)

3. Develop an appreciation for intrinsic rewards (such as earned praise)

4. Provide a focus for learning (such as developing a career focus)

5. Place students at a similar level that are also seeking to understand a concept

6. Chunk contents into smaller and more easily understood concepts

7. Space practice to encourage retention

8. Provide formative assessment to focus learning on concepts found difficult

9. Develop an appreciation for revision practices (establish cause (study) and effect (do better))

10. Use environmental print (posters etc)

11. Present and repackage information multimodally (visually, aurally, written, orally)

12. Use ICT effectively (this is a topic in itself)

13. Scaffold well (understanding their prior learning)

14. Provide access to practice work

15. Develop an understanding that they have control over what they can learn - they control the effort that they put into learning and the result of that learning.

16. Overcome test anxiety through overlearning 

17. Explicitly teaching how to use a text (how to use a worked example, checking answers, getting to the assessment level questions at the end of exercises, reading ahead, using an index, reading the glossary, identifying hints to worked examples)

18. Developing the confidence to ask questions

19. Checking understanding

20. Using a calm and constructive approach to teaching (especially for trauma, Autism, PTSD, anxious students)

21. Reduce load, focus exposure to practice work (to prevent tiredness and fatigue) - this appears counterintuitive, but a student undergoing high levels of learning will tire quickly overcoming high levels of anxiety - driving them to continue doing pratice work is counterintuitive to a positive learning environment. The trick is to identify when overcoming loafing and when genuine fatigue is being encountered (the student may not know!).

Often, if queried about why a child is not succeeding, the answer given is a lack of resilience.  To my mind this is the effect rather than the cause.  Where "resilience" is the issue, often the steps to allieviating the effect need further examination.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

All students deserve to find success

In our careers we have moments of epiphany.  That moment where you realise that you need to refocus what you are doing or take what you know and apply it in different ways.  Sometimes it's about remembering a concept that you had learned that you had forgotten, sometimes it's synthesized from your learning and in moments of genius it's inspiration and something truly new.

At the moment I'm coming to grips with the idea that school is an experience that every child has once.  A formative experience that has the potential to impact for many years to come.  An experience that is more than content, more than pedagogy, more than social skills, striving for excellence, resilience and a whole heap of other stuff that we fill it with.

It's about a young life finding their way in the world.

How this young person defines themselves is based on their experiences, for the majority of their time from 4 years old to 18 years old in our care.  

Most of the what we teach them is irrelevant 12 years later.  Typing, how to play a sport, woodwork, sewing, calculus, grammar, spelling, greek history, water cycle - 90% of what we teach will not be used again to the detail level it is taught.  The meta learning is important but most is forgotten 25 seconds after assessment.

What is not forgotten is the Dance concert, the kind teacher that noticed them and made a fuss, the excursion to the beach, the carnival where the team won, first love, being bullied, farting on the mat - experiences that helped form young minds.  

This is our biggest job - ensuring that the experiences are positive ones and that we are there to pick them up kindly when they are not positive.  Sometimes we are so focused on "high care, high expectations" we have forgotten what makes school a positive experience for children - experiences to remember.

If a child has positive and formative experiences that make the child an empathic and productive citizen, they have found success. All children deserve to find this success and we need to focus on making this happen.  Measuring this and increasing the quality of experiences to my mind is a better metric of success than any median ATAR score or measures of school attainment.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Where to for low ability students?

There are those children that can cope with whatever you throw at them.  They've known some conflict in the home, have played some team sport, know empathy and are generally well rounded kids.  When faced with a situation where they might fail, they're willing to give it a go.  They have a modicum of ability and do ok.

There are a growing group that know they lack the ability to reach the Year Level achievement standard and can't understand the Year level syllabus content.  They cry, run, distrupt others, are scared, get angry and a host of other emotions that seem well outside what one would expect from a good student.  These children can be labeled without resilience and disruptive.  They face 12 years of behaviour management, feeling like failures and may suffer a range of mental health issues.

I'm not sure resilience is the problem - it's a symptom of a system that tries to get kids to fit a model, rather than the social requirement of schools fitting the needs of the student.  As legislation continues to increase the scope of schools, schools are buckling under the financial strain it causes to provide this level of service.

In today's enlightened world we don't just go, "toughen up princess" without looking a little deeper.  Why are students acting this way and how can we help them reach a point where they can continue learning?

It's up to us as educators to gain trust of the student and find a way to help them.

How do we walk the fine line of childhood reticence to do work that is not fun and where students are at risk from emotional breakdown?  We're not Psychologists, Social Workers, Doctors, Nurses, Psychiatrists, their parents - yet as teachers we often have to interpret vague instructions by all of these , teach for six hours a day and balance the best advice available of how to assist a child learn, often with a group of similar other students requiring similar attention in the class.

The basic answer is that it is hard and is part of the experience teachers are now expected to have.  The ability to differentiate pedagogy and content for students is a requirement of teaching and not something we can just say - "I don't do that".  It's defined into the job via the AITSL standards and legislation.

It's impossible to get Professional Development to satisfy all cases faced with (Autism cases in particular are individual and we just have to examine each case as we go and do our best).  It's not an limitless budget, compromises need to be made.

The next challenge in education isn't meeting the needs of high performing students, it is working with the students that feel like they don't belong and providing them with meaningful pathways to employment.  This is a complex question that has been made more difficult with Covid and automation shutting down service industries that would normally use manual labour.  It's an issue that needs to be addressed.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Finding a positive mindset

Often in teaching things are not done the way you would like.  Things were done differently in the past and now you are being asked to change.  The changes appear to be worse than what was done before.

You can do a few things, some that are positive, will help you adjust and develop a positive mindest:

- seek to understand the change

- look for the positive in the change

- identify where you can learn new skills

- assist in the analysis of the changes

- discuss the changes openly in a constructive manner

- examine ways to make the change work for you

- be willing to give the change a chance

- understand it is not always the implementer that has instigated the change

- you may not be able to be told all of the reasons for the change


There are things that you can do that can cause you distress and potentially affect your career:

- lose perspective (make it out to be bigger than it is)

- whiteant the person making the change (be positive to the person but negative out of earshot)

- actively seek allies to create groundswell to undermine the change (seek to change the opinions of others to oppose the change)

- encourage others to speak up against the change (this is especially poor when senior members encourage younger members but do not speak up themselves for fear of being seen as overly negative)

- passively resist the change (say that you will but not do it)

- be overly negative about the change (discuss it as a failure before it has had a chance to succeed)

- personalise attacks and be adversarial (attack the person rather than consider the change)

- be the squeaky wheel (that is known for complaining)

- be the rebel (that is known for obstructing change)


It is tempting to fall into negative habits. It's hard when changes make your job harder (and easier for others) and it can taint your whole outlook on teaching if you are not careful.  

Ultimately it is not possible to provide an optimal environment with the perfect amount of personel available, optimal class sizes and all of the resources required to do the job all of the time.  It is a compromise between available resources, wants and needs.  Things that work may not be sustainable in the holistic balance that is the delivery of education in a school.

Where a school has a bloated upper school offering, small class sizes and is well resourced, it indicates that there are some hard times ahead.  Unfortunately with increased scrutiny on schools, this cannot be sustained any more under the one-line budget.

Monday, March 1, 2021

ICT Products for schools

ICT vendors have cottoned onto Voluntary contributions.  Government schools can charge up to $235 per year in voluntary charges.  This is an easy target for IT vendors as it is something that parents will pay for and a low number of students use it compared to the number that it is paid for.

The usual sales pitch goes like this:

Free trial - with no obligation.  There is a hidden cost as implementation has a cost in training, set up experimentation and teaching to students.

Teachers use trial, some parents use trial.  

Price is given for the whole school (knowing that a small proportion will use the tool).  Thus the price sounds small, but on a usage basis can be upward of $50 per student, subsidised by parents that are not using it.  In many cases senior school is included in the per capita price, but very little is offered to that student group (and they are excluded from voluntary contributions) making it something covered by the school.  

It is also a sop to parents that want OLNA support, but with very little evidence of success assisting disengaged students that need the support but won't use ICT.

Removing it after the trial causes conflict with teachers that are invested in it.  

I'm not saying it is not effective for some - it is just that the cost is hidden in an average charge for all students including a vast majority not using them.

Evidence such as Hattie's meta analysis does not support ICT solutions either as effective.

Students forced to use it quickly dislike it as it is often poorly targeted practice work.  I'd like to think home time is for finishing work not completed in class, intervention work targeted by the teacher, revision and study, together with extra curricular activities.  There is no space for poorly targeted practice.

Trying to pay for a targeted solution (eg only for the kids that need and will use it) results in vendors jacking up the price, often 200% the cost of the whole school solution, verifying to some degree the deceptive business model (paying for something with parent monies that are not appropriate for the students the product is bought for.)

Mathspace and Mathsonline use this approach and Mangahigh may use this approach but I have not been in contact with them for some time (I did like their adaptive tests but am still waiting to see a good, reliable, valid adaptive test written to complement the classroom syllabus).  Mathletics used a similar marketing approach to Mathspace and Mathsonline, but has a smaller footprint in high school and may not insist on schoolwide deployment with dwindling market share.

The worst thing is when effectiveness is not evaluated - when it is just a marketing sop to parents to show the school is ICT ready.  As an IT person, it is crazy to see this amount of money being thrown around like confetti.  After all, the cost of delivery is nil after the product is designed and the development is not rocket science.  It's a market crying for a no cost, syllabus based solution.

Maybe if I get annoyed enough I'll sit and write one.  The technology is now freely available, it just needs to be put in a market ready format.