Showing posts with label learning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label learning. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Putting urgency back into the curriculum.

The developmental curriculum has slowed the pace of the curriculum to the desired pace of students. As far as I can tell, the desired pace of a good many students is a slow crawl (perhaps even falling backwards). I lay the blame for this at the idiotic levels based assessment programme that has finally been turfed.

The idea of standardised grades across the state is plain stupid as it prevents some students ever having success in their reports. It is no wonder that motivation for these students that face constant failure is low (despite achieving during term and learning at an appropriate rate). The obvious solution is to use NAPLAN to gauge state-wide performance and normalise class grades.

The need now is to forget the pace students desire (in too many cases it is slower than what they can actually do) and create a pace that is optimum for learning. Despite hearing comments otherwise, they are not the same thing. To say that a child (with no experience of what they can do) should set the pace of their learning is wrong. An programme/syllabus of work that has been tested and improved through years of experience is bound to have a higher proportion of success than a one off experimental curriculum by inexperienced teachers solely based on the current cohort. Teachers need a syllabus well paced and sequenced to assist students complete the programme required for school leaving and thus assist in identifying when remedial or extension action is required to assist students (preferably with a streaming mechanism to reduce performance pressure) - this would be a far better result than drifting kids bobbing at the same level for years at a time.

The programme drives the class, and the urgency created by a required pace of work provides the anxiety required for proper learning. The pendulum swings and again teachers can focus on teaching to a programme rather than facilitating what students see themselves able to do. After all, students in the workforce need to manage their work to meet deadlines, where better to learn than through assessment in school.


Does all this mean that I am against OBE? Not really. I have always liked the idea of outcomes as a guide for a programme of work. It is like the backbone of a programme showing what needs to be taught. It's also all I've been taught via tertiary study. Tied to scope and sequence documents and Progress maps, OBE concepts are a good thing - give me anything that helps me understand the underlying concepts and ideas behind the curriculum. OBE is not a panacea - clearly it has shown to be poor for grading assessment, poor in promoting homogeneous classes, weak when promoted with collaborative learning and negative when tied to a developmental programme with weak students.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Middle school & end of year reflection

After a year of trying to establish rapport with middle school I think the obvious is as follows:
Without teaching upper school classes and being involved with NCOS, middle school teachers have disconnected from upper school requirements through no fault of their own.

Added to the traditional "it's an issue at primary level - but we have five years to rectify it" we also now have "it's an issue with middle school, how can we possibly fix it in two years".

Students wrapped in cotton wool, unable to connect success with working hard find senior school difficult.

Assessment changes and alteration to pedagogical methodology in middle school has reduced the rigor required for TEE subjects especially in those with little discipline at home.

Without a detailed syllabus, critical topics can be deferred to later years causing irreparable damage.

Responsibility for subject performance should be left in the hands of those that understand the subject area.

Graduation should not be automatic. Pastoral needs of the individual should not be placed above the academic needs of the student and group as a whole.

Students can be entertained and placed with friends to stay in school but when once the demands of TEE level education arrives, it gives students too little time to adjust to the requirements of real study. The adjustment needs to occur in year nine - especially for the gifted kids.

General observations from 2008:
Streaming in mathematics is required where more than four levels exist across a cohort.

Intervention time is limited to less than 1 minute per student in homogeneous classes greater than thirty and puts teachers at risk with the current defer intervention actions BMIS discipline policy. Intervention time is greatly increased in a streamed class as peer assistance, direct instruction and modelled lessons become more effective.

Collaborative lessons can work when consequences for non-performance are correctly administered (peer pressure is a fantastic tool in this case).

The most reward comes from success with students with the least demonstrated ability.

Any student (without a learning difficulty) can learn any topic given an adequate amount of time (Kevin Casey).

Male students are not getting the results in mathematics in line with their ability levels.

It is possible to make a difference. Bring on 2009.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Last two weeks of school

When I was a lad, the last day of school was a day for cleaning the place up. After 12 pm we started cleaning and after cleaning was complete we had a goodbye party last period on the floor with the desks and chairs piled up at the back. Until then, we completed classwork.

Today, this does not happen. During term students drift out of school thinking that taking a week out here and there is ok, that it is their right to have personal tuition to catch up when they return and that teachers must prepare material for them (that will not be done) whilst they are on holidays.

My favourite thing now is to ask students that have been absent (even for a day) if they have found a friend and caught up during form class (form is usually 20 mins of dolittle time each day where students rock up 2 seconds before the bell and get their names ticked off whilst talking through the notices). If they haven't caught up, I direct them to get their notes complete and until they have I help others first that have done the right thing (..after all once students have made an attempt to catch up they probably won't need the help).

Programmes seem to wrap up in week 8 term 4, as reports and all assessment have to be in. Student absenteeism starts to increase by week nine as students get sick of watching videos. Fun days start to appear to keep students busy. By week 10 absenteeism is at an all time high.

Students get roped into tasks to help get things done around the school. The sad fact is that it is usually the reliable kids that have the most to lose. They get taken out of class and valuable learning time is lost not to mention the disruption of reteaching when they return.

Unfortunately all of these things also occur in week 10 of every other term. That means we potentially lose 5 weeks out of 40 for the year to these cool down periods. Couple this to ramp up time, assemblies, exams, excursions, PD days and public holidays we can easily lose another 3 weeks. That means a clear 20% of programme time is lost over the year.

Teachers that run their programmes through to week 10 are put under pressure to stop by students (and teachers) as their class is the only one doing any work and it is not fair.

Last year in year 9, I had my practice of getting kids to work to the end of term questioned and I caved in and stopped the programme on the last day. This year for my year 10 class I was not so kind. Any of my kids that were being roped into alternate activities were found and returned to class. They worked until their last period practising trinomial factorisation... And do you know what.. they seemed to respect that their programme of learning was being protected. I don't get to see them until the last day next week (one period lost to a school assembly, one to a whole of school fun day, one to finishing on a Thursday), effectively making it a nine week term and that too needs looking at.

I can't complain about student knowledge if I'm not willing to do anything about it. This is an area that can be improved especially for my high ability students.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Building a better future for our kids

Getting kids to see opportunity rather than negativity is a key objective for 2009. As times get more difficult and unemployment rises, it is ever so important for kids to use their education for a new start in life and bring hope not only into their lives but into their families.

There are inspirations in every year group, the child with a terminal illness that strives for A's, the child that works every spare second to send money home to parents in Africa, the student that couldn't read two years before and now is able to contribute to mainstream classes.

Once an opportunity is presented to a student we get limited opportunities to demonstrate that effort leads to success. Any success with some kids needs to be celebrated, even staged to ensure that they get on the right road. If they are going to fail at a task (and they must learn how to cope with failure) they need to be supported, prepared and lead by the ear to see the achievement gained in failure. The learning of resilience is important beyond any skill.

We need to believe that they can do things. They have enough doubt in themselves, it does not need to be reinforced. Push them hard, see what they can do - it will always surprise you. Work to drive them to a better place - a good work ethic is an an achievement in itself.

The little darlings need to learn that boundaries are ok and are there to protect them. The world may not be fair or cheering them on, but generally it's not against them. All of us old folk fight for a better future for them. Learning the rules is a precursor to learning how to interact with others and the community - simply modelling polite language can save them from being instantly judged the minute they open their mouths.

Value systems now that religion is no longer impressed on kids are lacking. Without a value system kids lack a knowledge of right and wrong. In a world where everything moves so fast and knowledge is valued over experience, it is hard for them to see that there is wisdom in older folks. This is of course every generations fate - but with the rapid pace of the information age it is being exacerbated. They don't believe in our values (what would we know!) and lack a better system themselves.

Parents, rather than argue at the end of a hard day at work, just give in to an argument - kids do not understand no as an answer being used to the last word. At least until they do something that has a consequence that cannot be overlooked. When this happens, the gentle leading of them to their errors is a hard task that requires patience that I need to develop further.

We need to protect students that have good qualities from students that are developing them. Once an academic student is identified they need to be driven forward. Students developing good qualities need to have champions that mentor them through and help them through difficult times.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Passion, student behaviour and being fiery

One of the issues in classes today that stems from the home is that students have trouble accepting that a teacher has authority in the classroom. At home they argue with parents in a very democratic fashion. Students believe (wholeheartedly) that they have a right of reply to any misconception that they face.

I must admit this gets me fired up especially in my 'A' class. Any student willing to take responsibility for the care, nurture, learning needs and welfare of thirty students, get a degree as a minimum requirement for teaching can have my job if they can prove they would do it better. Until they do this, if I ask a student to be quiet or stand in the hall, see the team leader, copy off the board or attempt a question they may believe they can't do, I expect them to attempt to follow my expectation.

They will fail sometimes, and this is ok. This does not give them a right to argue and waste teaching time. It should prompt some introspection as to why they didn't understand how to do it and hopefully seek assistance from friends, pay more attention when solutions are put on the board or seek assistance at an opportune moment during class or after class. Maybe it would be a good idea to get them to journal why they have had such trouble understanding a concept and identify ways they could better understand a topic. Bringing the correct materials to class (eg. CAS calculators, pens, paper, texts), paying attention during instruction, fostering friendships with those that do understand, reading their notes (and keeping them in a place they can be used) - attending school regularly (my favourite) and catching up after sickness may be a good start.

These students do not have a right to insist on help at a time that suits them. To use a claim for help to justify poor or avoidant behaviour is not acceptable. I would love to be able to provide just-in-time intervention to every student all of the time. In a class of thirty it just is not possible. The belief that getting instant help is a right is infuriating and I don't know where it is being fostered. Maybe I should enquire into how many are only children (and thus do not have to compete for attention) and also examine my own methods of helping during practice time (maybe I am a contributer to the problem!).

When instructed on where their actions are errant I expect nothing less than silence especially with those talking during teaching time - this is done in the hall outside my room. Try my patience and half the school hears. It's fun watching them open their mouth and then hear them "but you won't let me talk to explain". If you talk during my teaching time and I have to stop the only thing I wish to hear is I'm sorry and then see an end to that behavior. Woebetide the student that interupts me again. My other students have the right to learn and it must be protected.

There must be a line between teacher expectation and student behaviour. There must be a consequence if this is crossed. A lecture, for many of my kids is enough to get the message. If they get the message, no further consequence. If it continues -they start the path to BMIS.

The argumentative nature of students at correct times needs to be fostered (we don't want meek students) - but it must be cultivated with manners and knowledge that there is a time and place to discuss the finer points of an issue. I always offer time after class for extra assistance and am happy to discuss any issues or problems from a class at this time. Funnily enough rarely is this offer taken up by these students during lunch or their own time.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Music soothes the savage beast

Our school has no music programme. Many of our teachers attempt to use music in their learning areas to fill the gap. In English it might be examining lyrics, in IT examining how digital delivery is changing an industry, in media how music can emphasize and focus delivery of a message.

In my mathematics classes at the end of term I tend to bring in my guitar. Sometimes there's a bit of singing, other times it's placing a guitar in the hands of a student for the first time, sometimes it's a bit of strumming whilst they are doing their work and a bit of banter about 'more modern music' please. Last class I was told it was soothing and they did a fair bit of work. All in all it's simple classroom building.

A strategy I have seen in another school is using music to keep class noise low. The music is turned to just an audible level.. as long as the music can be heard it is left on. Other times, MP3's are allowed as long as students are working with reasonable efficiency.

I have also used music once or twice in statistics, where we examine radio station choice, genre's and the like.

One point that I should make is that I cannot stand the ghetto subculture. Would-be rappers beat boxing and talking about their 'hoes' make me want to fume. Girls that 'booty shake' and behave as property get a stern talking to. I would much rather pop, 'happy house' and dance music was the genre of choice and women viewed the 'empowered' nature of such video clips being object of desire and love rather than being objects of ownership found in rap culture. I inform the young ladies that they should be playing with dolls and doing schoolwork rather than thinking about boys. Once pointed out, the concept has a tendency to stick and find a home in their minds.

It must be a generational thing.

At home, these students work with constant noise/music in the background. In some ways I understand that they wish for similar circumstances in the classroom. There is some kernel of logic in allowing them to listen to music whilst working as known music probably blocks background talking out and allows the student to focus on the task at hand - conversely up-to-date music may be distracting as they will actively listen to the music (and want to discuss it) rather than actively doing work. I believe though that in many cases silent work still has it's place.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Indigenous Education cont..

I spoke to a colleague about this issue (one of the successful teachers at the school motivating indigenous and low performing/high aptitude students) and he raised (surprise.. surprise) that the most significant factor was the contact he had with parents. It's true too, he has a joke with parents and doesn't hold back if he thinks a student is going in the wrong direction - it works for him.

His main criticism is related to parents saying one thing and doing another - the support of students had to be real as the lure of government money and money from working provided a real alternative to completing school. As a parent it is so important to do what is promised in the way of student support.

A situation today raised another pertinent factor - the need to maintain high expectations. A request to drop to an easier class via the AEIO was turned around with a reminder that assistance was available (and had been organised at the start of the year) but was not being used. The student walked away happy being able to discuss their concerns, negotiate a better situation and we maintain a student university bound. The downside is that I find these type of discussions rather time consuming, taxing and draining.

The final factor to raise today is the common avoidance of indigenous students to conflict. I had to double check with the AEIO afterwards to ensure that this wasn't one of the cases where student says yes and means no. He assured me that this was not the case and we can verify this when the student comes to the arranged tutoring.

All in all not a bad day..

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Successful Indigenous/Aboriginal Education

A worrying trend is seeing high performing indigenous students in year 9/10 fall away in year 11/12. The success of students that buck the trend seems highly dependent on the contribution of a few people in schools.

Firstly the AEIO is one link in the chain. This is the person that has had the perseverence to keep the kids coming to school. They discover and solve issues on a regular basis and to be successful are firmly entrenched in their communities.

The follow the dream programme and their coordinators do a great job in lifting students to a level where university is a potential option. I've seen students, many that have been given up on, be brought 'back online' multiple times and crawl toward some form of success in year 12.

Individual teachers are such an influence on these students lives. Many of these students feel persecuted in the classroom by students and teachers. A good teacher can redirect some of this insecurity into the student seeing the consequences of their own negative behaviour and the same teachers also investigates any ongoing social issues themselves. And when I say good teachers, I mean great teachers, as these teachers are giving life changing assistance and it's not something just anyone can do. I say that with confidence as I'm pretty useless at it, despite best of intentions on many occassions.

Student support and integration are key components. Successful students can be persecuted by their own, leading to dumbing down their ability and overacting behavioual problems. Student integration into non-indigenous social groups can help break the helplessness cycle. Great student indigenous role models especially in year 10,11,12 prove to be so important. They show that success can be achieved, it's ok to work hard and quite possibly fun/cool too!

Administration is often the missing link as they are often seen as the punitive rather than supporting source. The punitive support is essential as there are many lower performing students that require that punitive backbone to underpin their positive behaviour. The other half of the equation is the ability of administration to assist teachers, programme coordinators, students and AEIO's to promote ongoing student success.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Creativity and thinking

The idea that all work done in school ends in assessment narrows the creativity of students.

Since I was a lad in school, the amount of creative work done in class has decreased. My guess why is that getting students to do 'thinking' work is too hard to mark and crowded out of the curriculum with the need to assess specific content.

Funnily enough, where creative work was once welcomed by students (and I'm sure even primary teachers today can verify this), in high school students spurn it. They don't seem to want to put in the effort to create something and try different applications of concepts, especially when more than one way exists to complete a problem.

At the start of last term I asked students to create a two bedroom house in under 150 m2. Then I reduced it to 100 m2. There was graph paper, a little computer programme that you could create a floor layout and some leading questions on a worksheet available for those that couldn't start. I had pre-prepared another similar project with sporting fields. If I did these projects in primary I'd get all sorts of models and different ways of measuring, reports on how objects were laid out and so on.

I did have a couple of stand out results in report form. On the whole though I had way too many not finish/start saying this is too hard, this is stupid, I'm not doing it.. For that group of students I've put away the open ended task for now.

On the path to senior school where do students lose their creative will? Is the need for constant assessment reducing the opportunities and skill of students to be creative?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Freethinking, valid statistics and improper research

Citation is the bane of free thought. An article is judged as likely truth or mistruth by the amount of items in a reference list.

We unconsciously imbue our students with this ball and chain when teaching referencing and citation. The freewheeling thought required of creation and inspiration gets buried in the need for regurgitated, "critical" evidence and reference based research. This whole blog has spurred the need for recycling concepts and using other's posts to lend credence to ideas. If you're here, it's to hear what I think based on my experience and disagree or agree with it. After all my view might change 14 minutes from now with a point made by you!

The action research movement and the original OBE movement has been encouraged through the "I must be right because I can quote 15 other people that agree with me." It's complete and utter nonsense. We should not disregard tried and true methods because a group of people say it is wrong and those using them don't scream their obvious effectiveness. Nor should we disregard a notion based on anecdotal evidence even though it sounds right but we can find no evidence that anyone has documented to support it.

While we're at it I resent the need to write boring, uninspiring articles lacking emotion. We need to encourage children to write with the passion they are born with rather than bleed it out of them with needless detail and bland academic articles.

As educators and professionals we need to use proper and valid statistical methods on real samples (applied mathematics!!) to question what we know and evaluate new ideas with an open mind as experimental concepts before we implement them to a wider student community. I enjoy research and experimentation (being a research and development manager in my not too distant past) but dislike change without proper consideration (in the same way I dislike bad implementation of IT). Education too often has used our students as guinea pigs instead of treating children with the same care as say new pharmaceuticals or an algorithm in a defence contract computer program.

Introducing poorly prepared bland children to society is equal to a crime of introducing a dangerous drug to the masses or creating a flawed computer programme that controls nuclear missiles. One student can change the world. Let's create children that can conquer that world and not just document then sleep through it.

Impact of parents on student results

Yes, a teacher has a big impact. I maintain that the impact of parents on the net educational result is by far higher. Impact of social networks is fairly high too. Let me build a scenario.

Student A goes home, sits at the kitchen table whilst mum is making dinner. She gets stuck, asks mum and both sit and discover the answer together. Student completes their homework and mum checks the next day that their answer was correct.

Student B goes home, sees mum making dinner and goes into the bedroom. Student gets stuck, pops online and asks a friend.. after a bit of a chat she gets on with her homework.

Student C goes home tries to do their homework alone, gets stuck and then competes with thirty other students for 3 minutes of attention the following day at school for the teacher's help. Student falls behind students able to complete their homework.

Ok, it's simplistic and is not how it really works. It does show how a student that has help at home is advantaged over students where parents are not assisting. Parents keeping up with students in their learning is very important. Let's be serious, if a student can do it, a parent with their wealth of experience in most cases can too.

Truanting and sickness

Kids wagging school is not acceptable. I have this conversation with many kids during term especially in the upper class. If a kid truants/is sick/has unscheduled holidays then it will take at least four days of hard work for every day skipped for them to catch up.

On the day they return, much of the information taught will make no sense. The student has to find a student willing to lend them notes and copy them out. They have to complete two days worth of homework.

The consequences of missing a test day is much worse. The test still has to be sat. This is usually in the next class.. but whilst completing the test the new topic is introduced. The new topic now takes even longer for the students to get the gist of.. the cycle of failure continues.

But this isn't the end of it.. it's not just in my class that they have this problem.. it's in all their classes.

It cannot be underestimated the problems caused for students when kids are taken out of class for trivial matters. School balls, socials, trips overseas after year ten, sniffles, looking after sick siblings, sleeping in, laziness, lack of parental reprimand, fear of bullying... the list goes on and on.

To the students wishing to succeed I say to them, unless you are dead come to school.. and if you're dead you better work hard to catch up when you get back.

Failure as a path to success

I'm sorry, I don't understand how you can expect to succeed without experiencing failure. Students must fail from time to time to maintain motivation. Striving for excellence is a lifelong ambition and true excellence is something that's highly unlikely we will reach often.

I'm guilty sometimes of molly coddling my students and I have a great member of staff that says no.. make the test harder.. push them further. The test results come back and they've averaged 25%.. but they know what they needed to learn, we can review the content and give them a second go at it. They can analyse what they could have done better.. We can empower them to self evaluate and re-examine their work and study habits. They can make new connections and realise that resilience is a desirable commodity.

.. and they can feel the exultation of getting something that they thought impossible.

To me that is what learning and mathematics is all about.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Role of syllabus and curriculum

The disjunct between high school and primary school in mathematics has never been greater. Middle schools are finding it increasingly difficult to bridge students to upper school requirements and I place this problem in Western Australia at the feet of Progress maps level 3.

In primary schools I did practicum at, level three was seen as the aim for year 7. In mathematics this causes all sorts of problems. Let me give you some examples and see if you can guess what level they are.

Number Outcome
negative numbers [level 6]
reading and using decimals [level 4]
using numbers into the millions [level 4]
using percentages [level 4/5]
simple operations (+-x÷) on fractions [level 5]
money calculations [level 4]

To find the answers highlight the sections between the brackets.

If your child is in level 3 then know that your child will struggle in high school until they catch up.

If you see me coming to your school in term 4, 2008 with a 50-60 page document outlining what we need for year 6/7 and a lesson by lesson schedule - please don't stick it in the bin and say we don't have a clue, especially those using first steps. Make changes, prove us wrong. Help us improve an ever worsening position. We're just trying to create a clearer picture of what is required and the pace that needs to be travelled to cater to your high calibre students.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Role of assessment

Assessment is a key part of teaching - it gives students/teachers/parents feedback on how the teacher and student is doing.

Yet, the curriculum framework changed the primary source of reporting from teacher judgement to completed assessment. This is wrong and has significantly degraded the accuracy of reporting.

To predominantly use written or oral assessment as the key indicator of performance does not adequately show progress of a student. Students can perform well in a test and not be at the level indicated (especially a week after the test). Students can perform poorly in a test and be well above the indicated mark. A test only is an indication of student understanding - a better indication is normally where a teacher believes the student is at.

After all a teacher sees a student in a range of contexts and under different levels of stress and assistance. We know that experienced teachers can gauge a student with few minutes of seeing their work, and are just as quick to change that opinion given the correct feedback from a student.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why learn Mathematics?

"This is all crap, I'll never do this in real life.."

And you know what - for many students this will be absolutely true, in a way. They will never use mathematics in the way we teach it. Here's a topic, learn the content from the board, open your textbook, do some questions, perhaps complete a worksheet, do an investigation, complete a test and maybe an exam.

Yet if we dig a bit deeper we do use maths constantly in real life. We problem solve daily and mathematics gives us the tools to do it. When shopping I do ratio calculations, if banking I use percentages, when estimating I use my spatial awareness, when deciding I weigh up probabilities, when reading I evaluate statistics and the list goes on. Every skill used in mathematics puts us in a unique position not to look stupid.

Girls are especially fond of saying I'm not good at maths. That's like saying boys are not good at making dresses for dolls. Boys may be good at making dresses for dolls but are not encouraged to do so. We all need to encourage girls to know that they are good at mathematics and that trying is not optional.

Boys tend to be a little different. Generally they require instant success and will stop the minute they think they know something. Their working in general is less meticulous. In their favour, they will give things a go. We need to be mindful of this and reinforce that effort breeds success and showing working is a necessary part of learning.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Play needs to be taught

The sad fact is that kids in high school have forgotten the joy of play. Have a look in a playground and actually observe what they are doing. Some are on iPods, others are sitting, very few are actually engaged in any sort of play.

I experimented in my classroom and brought in that archaic form of entertainment - the board game. My experience and success has been mixed but I have discovered a lot about my kids.

Ticket to ride (a game of networks, decision making and probability) was successful as long as I moderated the game. If I walked away students couldn't play. Carcassone (similar in mathematics outcomes) was fun but students in lower classes found sitting still for 45 minutes nearly impossible.

In another session with my top group, I seeded each group with members that knew the games and asked them to explain to the others. Within 15 minutes each group had put the game away and sat talking. They just couldn't see the point. Each wanted instant gratification and could not see how engrossing themselves in a task such as this would provide this.

Now we might say that there is a generational gap and they have better games (such as Playstations and the like) yet in hindsight most wanted to try again and were more engaged on the second attempt. My conclusion was that it wasn't that they didn't like the idea of a game but that their experience in play was very limited.

Electronic Resources in the classroom

Many questions are raised as to whether electronic gizmos are required in the classroom. As you can probably tell I'm not a big fan - and that's generally from my experience as a programmer. I have a deep disdain for misuse of information technology and for those that perpetrate it. Education by far is one of the greatest proponents of the use of IT and also the worst user of IT.

For instance have you experienced death by Powerpoint?  Have you waited twenty minutes for IT to be fixed before a presentation can begin? Have you ever thought that a whiteboard could have done that faster, better, smarter that the electronic presentation. My experience thus far has been that it is better to buy kids a set of great texts than have a projector and develop online content. It's far easier to interact with kids with a whiteboard than any combination of IT (including smart board - which thus far has limited application compared to a traditional whiteboard)

That's not to say that I don't use IT. Graphic and CAS calculators are needed by students to pass university entrance exams. Tools like Blender can teach 3D viewing and cartesian planes effectively. I've used Java to give depth to algebra courses - but typically these are all in afterschool extension classes with highly motivated students.

Students have motivation in upper school - it's called university or getting a job. The time wasted on motivating students with electronic gizmos is in many cases better spent on providing and creating an effective lesson.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Three stages of Learning

Kids often say, how come it's so easy on the board but not in the test?

I tell my kids in class that there are three stages of learning. Stage one, anything I do on the board looks like gibberish. Stage two, the student can do stuff themselves - but forgets as soon as they walk out the door at the end of the lesson. Stage three students have mastered the topic and will be able to do well in their test.

It's not in any text that I have read - but is pretty logical and there are things students can do to get through each stage.

Step one is the first hurdle and requires engaging with the lesson, asking questions, listening, working with fellow students and seeing the teacher after class when necessary. Once understanding is gained only then is application and practice of any use.

Step two is about application. Have I done enough practice to make sure I don't forget this. Typically this is where most students fall down - some students need only a little revision to remember things, others need a lot and this changes with difficulty levels. There are many pitfalls here, but the path to mastery is overlearning - doing something to the point where thinking is not needed. Do your homework too, it's a good test of whether or not you have finished this stage!

Step three is where the current topic can provide a solid basis for the next topic. It's where so few students end up with the hectic pace of our current curriculum. When a student consistently reaches this stage is when a student really starts to do well.

Update 19/9/09: I later added a mastery step 4 and renamed the model the "Duh? I get it.. I got it.. I got it real good like" model, which kids seem to relate to.