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.

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.