Sunday, August 28, 2011

Afterschool classes

The Maths Dept runs four after school classes, two on Monday and two on Tuesday.  All classes are optional.  Students come that need help in particular topics, split by 9/10 and 11/12.  The senior school classes typically are seeking consolidation and the 9/10 class is typically those seeking extension.

Many afterschool classes are now becoming compulsory, especially at the end of the year.  I wish teachers wouldn't do this.  School is a complex organism and when you take freedom away, students are forced to make ill advised decisions.

This week I had to speak for students with excessive afterschool comittments, students that had options subjects in year 12 encroaching on class time (I doubt whether the student would appreciate my help either) and in study time.  I try and be supportive of options teachers and allow students to participate in extracurricular requirements but... stage 3 students in year 12 should be quarantined from them in the weeks leading to mock exams.   I'll be hard pressed to accept any argument that tries to say otherwise no matter how talented they are (or untalented in maths for that matter).

My thinking is this.   Students get into university based on an ATAR score or through portfolio entry.  Options subjects (at least at our school) are 2A or below in year 12.  Thus they are supporting cast when calculating an ATAR score.  3A scores are not, even low ones.  If we had stage 3 students in non MESS subjects that weren't scaled to useless, my position would be far different.

The argument that students will lose enthusiasm if not allowed to participate does not hold water either.  As a teaching body, it is our job to work with teachers to make sure these predictable situations do not occur.  It was a questionable teaching decision that put students there in the first place.

A student should participate because "they are helping market the school" is not acceptable either.  Year 12 mock exams are the culmination of 12 years study.  To jeopardise this by moving focus away from study lacks a little foresight and is not in the best interest of the student.

Don't think that I don't admire the option class teachers.  They are passionate about their subjects and passionate groups (even us maths dinos are passionate about our subject) will strive for what they think is right.  I'd rather have passionate groups striving for excellence than rampant apathy.   If people weren't discussing matters and pushing envelopes I'd be more concerned.  There are times where students can only continue in the academic subjects because they can vent using emotional and physical outlets.

MESS subjects do stupid things too.  We shouldn't be loading the end of the year with excessive assessment.  Identifying areas of weakness two weeks before exams is probably too late and of minimum benefit.  The words appropriate levels of study and revision need to be in the forefront of our teaching minds.  Student anxiety levels need to be kept at appropriate levels.

Coming back to the original point, this is why mathematics afterschool classes that I run are optional.  Students can choose whether they need the help or are in a position to enjoy extension.  They can prioritise their learning and optimise their potential.  Forcing a student to do something at this stage of the year is only creating a problem somewhere else.  Being able to make a decision is an important part of growing up, as is ensuring safeguards are in place when lack of maturity jeopardises their potential.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Responsible learning

There are many ways to motivate students to learn.  A common way is to provide extrinsic reward - "the bribery model".  This is a technique that is especially effective to provide short term performance gains, especially where the skill is not particularly exciting.  As the name suggests, its underlying value system is "I do something, I get something".  Immediacy is important as proximity to the reward  maximises the effect.  It is very now in its approach and is appropriate in many cases to kick start a learning programme.

A second model is an intrinsic goal oriented model, "education as a pathway".  It is the typical education model used by parents for the past 1000 years.  Be educated, have a future.  It is longer term and has elements of risk/reward.  Implicitly it has delayed gratification built in.

Where students do not value the goal oriented model and only work to instant gratification, the ability to maintain motivation fails.   The wall is hit earlier by students in an education lifecycle and the ability to be determined and seek excellence/success is greatly reduced whilst apathy or resistance to education grows.  Lacking resilience, the student is unable to bounce back fast enough after failure (a real issue caused by the no fail model at least until primary, if not middle school) and we produce students unable to cope with reality or that rebel not understanding options before them.

Part of the downfall of the intrinsic goal oriented model in WA is the failure to provide honest feedback regarding performance and the lack of effective career counselling (career structures have changed significantly in the past 15 years and schools lag this change).  Students are not aware of the possibilities in front of them and the consequences of their actions regarding learning in lower secondary.  Where all students pass, school graduation is not an indicator of an employable future.  Graduation becomes a hurdle rather than an enabler to access to the workforce.  Furthermore, the reduction in streaming takes away an important success indicator to students of their pathway towards employment and thus conceptually to their developing a concept of self (contrary to many views on streaming).

Discipline and setting clear behaviour boundaries (not just expectations) are safeguards to the success of the goal oriented model.  These are also being challenged by the incremental approach to discipline.   Students never reach boundaries thus have diminished ability to cope with limits.

To strengthen the goal oriented model we need to develop a range of appropriate pathways and more accurate indicators for students that they are on a pathway to a successful future.  National curriculum may provide some of the solutions together with positioning vocational studies properly within a school; strong leadership within schools, the department and universities need to provide the remainder.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Independent Public Schools

Now that the majority of government schools are either independent or becoming independent public schools, the rush is on for schools to examine their current practices as restricted by the department and seek ways to differentiate from nearby schools.

I welcome some things about independent public schools.  Without school boundaries, schools will live or die by their academic reputation.  This requires a broad strategy to ensure that students are enticed to each school.  NAPLAN scores, school reputation in the community and reputation with nearby primary schools will form a part of the drive of students towards a school.

Staffing will be a key issue moving forward as schools need to examine both their entry processes and how they wish their organisations to evolve.  The need for stability with driven, dependable, clever and caring staff will test the ability of schools to evolve into independent entities.  Promotional opportunities and the introduction of fresh staff with fresh ideas will be a key change issue in managing staff and developing the organisation.

It will be interesting to see how schools focus on both the long and short term requirements of keeping public schools as going concerns.  Schools that do not take a business approach to education may find that a superior academic programme is overshadowed by a lack of marketing ability.  Gloss and glitter, marketing tricks, making known extra curricular activities and wearing out shoe leather going to feeder schools may be required until parity is regained with the private sector.

I also wonder if short term focus on marketing will overshadow curriculum initiatives.  Ultimately short term tricks will not undo the damage done to education in the public sector through underfunding, mismanagement and poor curriculum direction.  Schools need to look to core business and identify how to raise education standards beyond that found in private schools.  Here again leadership will play a critical component in examining initiatives, encouraging successful attempts and marketing these successfully. Contrariwise unsuccessful initiatives will need to be redirected or discontinued.  Spending will need to be carefully evaluated in a way often ignored within schooling - often to the complete dismay and astonishment of observers from outside the system.

Do we need independent public schools?  Probably not... but we do require change and schools that can make the best of the opportunities have potential to benefit.  Now that the idea has had time to bed down, hopefully (fingers crossed) those that enter in the second and third rounds will not have too many transitory issues.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Games in mathematics

Developing strategic thinking in students is an emerging issue.  Living in a world of instant gratification, the ability to think is less prevalent in classes today.  The need for general knowledge seemingly has passed and rote learning tasks have been removed from WA curriculum.  There is little need to compete as everyone has access to the same information, gathered by Google, edited by Wikipedia.

In comes boardgames.  To play a boardgame a player needs to learn the rules and then work within the rules to seek advantage over competing players.  There is no prize other than the pleasure of learning and succeeding.  To succeed players must learn to strategise.

More than a few think I'm a more than bit nutty about games.  What I have found is that to engage students requires a wide variety of games and getting them to the point where they can open a box, read the rules and immerse themselves in a game is equivalent to the difficulty of getting a student to enjoy reading.  Similar to reading, success is based upon finding a related context.  Simpler gateway games can lead students to a love of thinking, not just success and winning.

To aid this below is my list of games that have been used successfully:

Gateway games
Pitchcar (7 players, <30 mins) 
Citadels (7 players, <30 mins)
7 Wonders (7 players, <30 mins)
Claustrophobia (2 players, <1hr)

Say Anything (5 players, <1 hr)
Apples to Apples (8 players, <1 hr)
Nuclear War (4 players, <1 hr)
Dixit (5 players, <1hr)
Lupus in Tabula (10 players, <1hr)
Carcassonne (4 players, <1 hr)
Ticket to ride, Europe (5 players, 1 hr)
Illuminati (7 players, 1+ hours)
Munchkin (7 players, <1 hr) 

Strategy Games
Through the ages (5 players, 3 hours) 
Indonesia (5 players, 3 hours)
Battlelore (2 players, <1 hr)
Space Hulk (2 players, <1.5hr)

Games currently under evaluation
Troyes (5 players, <1 hr)

Many games have been evaluated in establishing this list.  There are game links on the right hand side to help find and investigate these games further.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Professional Development

Any long time reader knows that I am a big critic of scheduled professional development days..  Most tend to be filled with administrative tasks and very little professional development is actually done.  Well, here I am now having to deliver a session to the local primary schools and I sit in the position of many presenters of not knowing what is expected by the primary teachers and having little time available to prepare a presentation of worth.

It's not that being asked to do it is a bad thing.  I am really looking forward to it.  My concern is that I could lose an opportunity to do it regularly by not being adequately prepared.  It's a bit of a fishing expedition as to how to create a closer relationship with the local primary schools.

On paper it should not be too hard.  Three of the five members of our maths department grew up in the area and two of them went to our school.  We relate to our kids.  The student profiles of our schools are very similar.  The results of both our schools are above like-schools in numeracy.  We both cater to the far ends of the student spectrum and have issues in the middle/bottom quadrant....  and we've taught much of the material now being pushed into primary.

I keep telling myself that it's only an hour.  It's an hour that could attract some of their top end to our school and give us an opportunity to do some extension work in primary.     I haven't done any adult training in the last five years other than practicum students and it's a little nerve wracking..   I hope at least some of the primary teachers are not as burned out with bad PD as I am and will see my ideas as worthy of consideration.

We'll wait and see.

Proofs in the classroom

Many of us have bad memories about proofs in the classroom and learned to switch off whenever they arrived.  After all, they were never assessed and the skill required always followed shortly after.   In texts today, the proofs are often missing and skills are instantly presented as the required content.

When writing assessment I tend to struggle with testing deep understanding vs trying to trick students into making mistakes.  I've read many external tests and they mainly use methods aimed at testing minute bits of content, "corners" of content areas rather than whether a topic is understood.  The wide splash of content that we are required to teach lends itself well to this method of assessment and it is quite easy to get a bell curve from it.

This is great for students that study hard and do lots of different types of questions.  It must be incredibly frustrating for naturally gifted mathematics students, the ones that enjoy delving into a new topic. I think this is where proofs need a more detailed treatment and where investigations in lower school can be repurposed.

The opportunity for delving into a topic is there for the picking.  Proofs for completing the square and Pythagoras' theorem are great ways of developing connections between geometric proofs and skills taught in classroom.  Developing conjectures about number patterns develops the idea of left hand side/right hand side of an equation and the setting up equations to solve problems.  Congruence, traversals of parallel lines and similarity are other topics that lend themselves well.

Having only taught upper school for awhile, it is interesting to see where the core ideas of geometric proof, exhaustion, counterexample, formal proof/conjecture/hypothesis and even induction can be introduced before year 11.  If 2C students can learn the idea of all but induction, there is little reason why we can't teach reasoning a little earlier.

Perhaps if they could reason more effectively they could then challenge their own results and complete investigations that developed into lasting learning events.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Last day of term

The last day of term was a lot of fun.  The praccies wound up their classes and went off into the wide world.  Students went off for break... .. and a long two terms finished on programme with tasks completed.  All good so far.

We were very lucky this time with two great practicum students in Math, both very different and bringing something special to the profession. I said to mine about half way through prac to name ten things that she did better than me.  She never came back to me with that list but here is what I came up with.

She has strong organisational skills
She creates a fantastic working rapport with students
Each task is well monitored for progress (macro)
She reflects diligently on each lesson
She actively seeks to monitor the progress of each student (micro)
Colleagues enjoy interacting and assisting her with issues she has identified
She thoughtful and caring
She is fun to work with
She is prepared and willing to take risks to promote learning
She has a great and appropriate sense of humour

As you get further into teaching, sometimes it gets harder to maintain these things..  It can be great to look back and see how bright and bushy tailed you were when you started.  When times get tougher, you can reflect upon areas to focus upon to regain that initial vigor.  Be confident and know that those awful teenage years finish, slowly you gain confidence and independence... things improve as you go through your twenties and thirties (I can't speak for the forties!).

After talking with the maths department, I won the praccie competition this term.

Well done you two..  We look forward to hearing about your progress.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Developing educators

I've thought for a long time that we fail to appreciate that there are a range of teachers required in education as different teaching styles benefit different students.  Our teaching practicum system has a tendency to promote outgoing, gregarious teachers and discourage practicum teachers that are not.  This is a real shame as those that take time to build their skills and have a calling to teaching may need more help to get over that initial hurdle of conquering teaching practices and behaviour management but then excel in creating engaging, caring and developmentally appropriate learning environments.

I was once told that I had a lifetime of occupations crammed into my twenties, but even with this I barely made it through my ATP.   My final practicum was a train wreck (my only pass grade of my degree) but does this define me as a bad teacher five years later?  Well.. I'm still here and still improving my teaching.  I'm no teacher of the year but my classes are well defined, my students are achieving and as a team we are moving forward.  My growth from that point on ATP has been linear and I expect that to continue.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that the best teachers are not necessarily those that found things easy, but those that really had to deconstruct a problem, seek to understand it deeply and then work with others to find a solution.  This creates an understanding of the difficulty of capturing the nature of the learning problem.  It's hard to get this point across to practicum teachers as many come in expecting it to be as easy as we sometimes make it look, not realising that getting kids to the point where they engage fully may have taken a term (or in some cases a few years) of hard work, organising resources has taken hours of planning and that skills and knowledge used in the classroom took years of experimenting until things came together.  Reflection is a key component in this growth.

The first five years in teaching for me wasn't easy, but after the first couple of years, with good support it certainly is becoming easier.  It's one reason why I say seniority has its place.  You don't survive as a classroom teacher unless you can handle the pressure most of the time and have management structures to relieve the pressure for the remainder of the time.  Without a hierarchy of some nature, we can't give teachers time to grow, nurturing them in soft classes, mentoring them through difficulties without fear and then developing them into true educators.

Perhaps after a few more practicum students I'll think this is a load of drivel and that the system is right..  but I hope not.  I'd like to say that we can develop a system where students, teachers and administrators see teacher diversity as a key goal within the system.