Sunday, March 31, 2013

Combined 11/12 courses for Australian Curriculum

One of the surprising successes of the school has been the running of combined classes in 11 and 12.  It has been made clear that SCASA ("the authority") does not want this to continue with Australian Curriculum.  This was stated by teachers at the Swan Schools Conference that are part of math discussion groups with SCASA.

At the moment we can run 1BC / 1DE / 2AB / 2CD / 3AB / 3CD MAT, 3AB 3CD MAS and even PA/PB or 1A courses as needs arise with a high school cohort of 470.  With an even smaller cohort this year, this will need to be reconsidered but is manageable.

We can do this because if we have 10-15 students from yr 11 and 10-12 students from yr 12, we can combine them to make a reasonable sized class (except the end courses 1DE MAT or 3CD MAT or specialist courses 3ABCD which can run at around 10 because of the larger classes).  This structure provides differentiation for our students and has been effective.

If we could not run these combined yr 11/12 classes, specialist courses could not run having a detrimental effect on school marketing as an academic institution.  Furthermore combining year groups has had the surprising effect of exposing yr 11s to students that have adjusted to yr 11/12 workloads providing the level of mentoring that MAG classes always promised (but never really delivered) because the endpoint is actually evident and the drive to work harder has clear reward.  Using this method we have built our 3CD courses to 7-8 students, a respectable 12% of our yr 12 cohort (with MAT class averages over 60% close to state averages).

The school cannot run Australian Curriculum "Focus, Essentials/General, Methods and Specialist yr 11" with class sizes of 10-15 and "Focus, Essentials, Methods and Specialist yr 12" with classes of around 10.  It will not fit within a small school math department staffing profile. It's going from 8 courses with reasonable numbers to 8 courses where the spread of students is not even, requiring additional classes (this is only evident when student cohorts are put to courses during timetabling). Add to this the increased focus on the WACE numeracy test with management of students failing the test in year 10 and then passing the test in year 11 (thus making general course sizes variable), I see issues on the horizon.

Given that a reasonable number of schools are in this predicament due to boundary degradation, half cohorts, yr 7s in private schools, gentrification and a host of local reasons,  this will further degrade the offerings of small public schools, ultimately further reducing their competitiveness.

I hope this is a direction that SCASA will reconsider.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

iPad journey

My iPad journey has hit a snag.  I designed a model that sends the iPads home and it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that I won't be allowed to do it.

This means something that was meant to complement classroom activities has become something that dominates preparation time.

Let me explain...

In a 1-1 model, students are responsible for the iPads, tracking usage is relatively simple.  In a classroom model, teachers are responsible.  This means keeping them in locked stores, being aware of which student has and had each iPad at all times, being able to liaise with ICT when misuse happens and identify which student (in which class) had the iPad.  If multiple teachers are involved this rapidly becomes untrackable as are issues with moving between rooms around the school (30 iPads are heavy).

In a 1-1 model, students take iPads out of their bags and put them back in - no real impact.  In a classroom model, taking them from the store, issuing them to students and counting them back in at the end of the lesson is time consuming.  5-10 minutes is 10-20% of learning time.

In a 1-1 model, students are trained to do the same thing every lesson with the iPads, they become just another tool like pen and paper.  In a classroom model,  there is a novelty factor, they fiddle with them, it's harder to train them into desired behaviours (like putting them at the top of their desks when doing written work).  Furthermore, each iPad is now being used over multiple year groups with a range of students, increasing the demands for identifying suitable materials than if it was focussed on one student at a particular skill level.  There is little point designing ebooks to put on iPads if they are going to remain in cupboards rather than used in conjunction with homework.  In a classroom model, levels of students have to be catered for if the iPads are to be used effectively.  In a take home model, the iPad can be used more effectively as an intervention tool (where the student does not miss teaching whilst catching up).

Incidental usage
In a 1-1 model, incidental usage is possible.  In a classroom model,  because there is an overhead to allocating the iPads, incidental usage is not as likely - I'm not taking them out for 5 minutes of use, whereas I might let a student that has an iPad do tables practice if they have completed their work if there is one on the corner of their desk..

In a 1-1 model, students are responsible for charging iPads, uploading apps and fixing small issues, along with ICT staff.  In a classroom model, teachers are responsible for identifying issues, finding solutions and liasing with ICT staff.  This should not be underestimated, as anyone that is in charge of a computer lab will recognise.

Retention of work
In a 1-1 model, the work is on the iPad and can be worked on over a number of lessons. In a classroom model, classwork has to be stored on resources linked to students rather than the device and this resource needs to be accessed from multiple devices.  Although this is normally the preferred model, iPads are not well suited to this and workarounds need to be found.  Any type of user authentication will slow down classes as authentication issues reduce available teaching time.

Behavioural incentive
In a 1-1 model, loss of the device is a real behavioural incentive. In a classroom model, it's only lost until the end of a class, a minor inconvenience.

I like using the iPads as mini whiteboards, doing quizzes on topics and giving students instant feedback to how they are doing, having lessons focussed on core numeracy.  We can now video students attempting problems and use it for diagnostics of a range of tasks.. I get all that.. but ultimately...

Conclusion: Poorly suited to classroom mode use in high school
Most apps at the moment are rote learning practice based - something that is poorly suited to learning environments and better suited to play (in extension or after school classes) or at home - they are important, just not in a highschool classroom with the overhead suggested.  Unless the student is able to use the device without impact on a learning programme it has the potential to be a distraction from the main game - learning.  Unlike in primary (with the same students in a class), I can't see how I can get utilisation to a level where buying iPads is viable for students within learning area budgets for use in classrooms (IWBs, texts and exercise books are more cost effective in 95% of cases).

If you take into account that applications need to be found to use on the iPads and classes designed for their use, put these issues on top and my enthusiasm wanes rapidly.  I am not saying that these issues cannot be overcome (and I have solutions for each issue), I question whether they are worth overcoming.  The outcome at the moment is that rather than complementing classroom use, they are fast become an impact tool only, one that I'm not sure is worth the investment of time, cost and effort within a classroom compared to other techniques.

I'm sure I'm not making each point as clearly as I could but they are a basis for discussion.  I'm also a little negative as I did a lot of work to ready the programme for take home use (with enthusiasm generated by students and parents) and now have to rethink it, something that I can't do now - it will have to wait until later in the year.

Monday, March 4, 2013

IPads and the classroom

I hate ICT when used without purpose.

Some of my favourite misuses of technology:

  • Social Networking
  • Research assignments
  • Interactives
  • Online learning modules
  • Portals
  • Blogs & Wikis
If someone comes to you and says we should be doing this, immediately ask why.  I wouldn't give a teacher a sledgehammer hoping that they will find something to do with it.  That's what is happening all too often with ICT.  You can do great things with these tools, but they need to be appropriate for the task.

Rather, start with a problem that inhibits learning.  If ICT is the optimum solution for solving the problem - then use it.

I have a problem in one of our streams.  Student work rate is low in the top class and self image is at risk in the focus class.  There is no personal excitement in learning new concepts and little drive observed.  The gap between the top and bottom class is quite large and there are issues with core numeracy skills in both groups.

I had 30 IPads at my disposal, so i designed a solution to bring both classes together (50 kids) and bring some excitement back to the group.  I could have done it without the iPads but it saved me some work and was a motivational factor for the kids.  I was lucky to have four teachers available to help on the day so student ratios (even though there were a lot of kids) were low.

Problem: Low motivation and low student output.
Solution: Use the iPads as motivation for completing a large amount of work to illustrate what can be done by students.  Schedule high and low performing students together.
Method: Six worksheets on core numeracy (tables and basic number facts) were placed at the side of the room.  All students were given the first sheet (25 questions).  The next sheet was given on completion of the previous sheet.  Students were given an iPad on completion of the last sheet.  Students in the focus stream only had to complete 4 sheets in the timeframe.  A math game (KingofMaths) was placed on the iPads($30 total cost) and high scores were recorded on the board (with the top stream students given a 10000 point handicap).
Outcome: Crazy, off the chart fun.  Completely controlled chaos.  Each student completed over 100 questions in the hour with little difficulty.  The few disengaged students were identified for further work, other students were taking the incomplete sheets home to do them later.  There was a sense of fun in the room and students were able to see what they could do when they tried.  

It hasn't solved the problem (that takes time) but has given students a new way of looking at what they can do.  Next week I have some puzzles to do to challenge their thinking, not just their computation speed, using a similar model.  Given that the whole thing too about 30 minutes of preparation and was a first attempt,  I think we can improve with more efforts.  I would not do this every lesson, but once a week I can see how we can attack the type of topics used in NAPLAN and improve our results further.   Teachers in the room responded that they thought it was awesome and something completely different to what we normally do.  Hopefully it will stimulate ideas for driving teaching pedagogy further.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

IEPs and engagement

Students cannot sit and do nothing in my classes.  It's a fundamental of my classes, something introduced to me by an EA when I first started in the school.  She has now gone on to be a teacher, and I'm sure a fine one.  It was an interesting lesson to me at the start of my career.  Listen to those experienced around me and that a good EA is worth gold for what they are paid.

That's not to say all EAs are great.  Some are decidedly ordinary - the issue being how to identify when an EA is being effective or ineffective...  We need to be fair - is it the fault of the EA giving a student individual assistance, the fault of the teacher giving a poor instruction, not adequately meeting the needs of the student or are the expectations of the student/teacher/EA unachievable given a certain circumstance (medical, emotional, developmental, prior learning, attitudinal).

Given a circumstance when a student is not learning - and as HoD I am responsible for learning (where the care team are ultimately responsible for monitoring and improving behaviour/attendance through IBPs), I face a difficult task as often the circumstance of a particular student is "confidential" and the lines of communication are muddied by "who needs to know".  With "at risk" students it is common to assign an EA to assist the student remain in class and learn.  I'm not a believer in withdrawal for extended periods (students in life will rarely have personal tutors), and teachers are overpaid to be babysitters and not have students learning.

What I really need to know as HoD are the strategies that are expected to work (developed in conjunction with the care team), that the teacher involved knows what is necessary to enact the strategy, that they are equipped to do it, they have the required resources (such as an EA) and that the student is on the same page - then I need to monitor that it is in effect and check it's effectiveness. To my mind the performance contract is the IEP.  I don't need to know the condition of the student, just the main effects of it, the strategies in place to ensure learning is happening and whether it is working.

The model I describe is teacher centric and unapologetically so.  If the teacher has responsibility for learning in the classroom, then they are responsible for ensuring learning is adequately occurring - ensuring there is an effective learning programme.  If a student is refusing to work, then it is the responsibility of the EA to make the teacher aware and then the teacher to enact change.  If the assessment is that the EA is not enacting the strategy as designed - then and only then, can the EA be assessed as ineffective.

The EA/teacher role needs to be in synergy, realising that we don't live in a perfect world (things won't always work with difficult students) and with some amount of lookahead as materials will need to be modified by the EA to ensure that they are suitable for the student.  The IEP has it's place here too as it documents the role of the EA and the tasks they need to do in preparing a lesson.

The bottom line is, it costs a lot to assign an EA to a student.  If the cost/benefit analysis is not there - we need to recognise that it is an expensive intervention and that it needs to be given priority to design a new solution.  After all, in a high or mid performing class, with a skilled EA, that person could be helping ten students rather than effectively helping none.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Coming from a world of litigation prior to teaching, I understand the reticence some have in writing down what you have said.  For many, not writing something down leads to deniability and the ability to change position without having evidence of doing so.

I have never thought of written evidence that way.  I was once told, don't write something down that you wouldn't want to appear in a court of law.  Secondly I was told never to write an email in anger.  I think these are both wise but are only part of the story.  

Only today I was told that communications I sent last year were likely to come back and bite me, but they are opinions at best, that people can take or leave - I'm not precious about my opinions, nor do I have a monopoly on being right.  I aim to help, and hopefully that is what I do most of the time.

The problem with not writing things down is that memory is fallible, and a lack of documentation (or inadequate documentation) means that definite positions are lost to the mists of time or worse still, history is re-written by those that have no evidence at all because no evidence to the contrary is available.

At our school I am seen as a supporter of IPS, but those reading this blog will realise that I criticised it before our implementation and that I continue to be wary of it.  My support for it was based in the people that needed it to staff the school, not in what I thought it would achieve in other areas.    

I have criticised OBE widely, but have supported ideas within OBE, and question its implementation more than the underlying concept.  I've seen it work, and have seen the consequences of diabolical assessment policies, hoping that we have learned from the issues and won't repeat them with Australian Curriculum.  The fact that we lack clear guidance for assessment and that an ambitious implementation plan set to political timeframes is occurring, means that we have some difficult years ahead.

I have watched the effects of delaying year 7 transition to high school and the effect of the half cohort on small schools.  Schools continue to struggle with planning over the next few years,  and the effort ensuring the ATAR courses in some guise will be practical under national curriculum requirements will be considerable.  2015 will be a watershed year for public school education.

By writing things down I can see how my opinions have formed and changed based on circumstance and perspective, I can reflect on my decisions (good and bad) and attempt to make better informed decisions in future.  Though this may be a brave position, I think documentation of this sort is important for future planning and that a fear of documentation where honesty and positive intent is present is ill founded.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Head of Department.

Today was my first day as Head of Department of our high school.  Six years and a fair bit of work has resulted in a position where I can monitor progress and instigate change to improve the learning programmes of students.  It's a role gained through attrition to some degree with some people better than I passing through it on the way to other roles, but I'll take it and make it into how I see it.  It's a two edged sword as I have to give up some class time, but it will free time to develop the courses further - which can only be a good thing.

Recently two bits of research crossed my desk.  The first stated that self discipline was more important than IQ, something that I have believed for a long time (albeit I attribute it to work ethic rather than self discipline - but I see them as two sides of the same coin).  The second indicated that social networks were detrimental to student learning, particularly for students of low self esteem (in hindsight, this is obvious like most insights into human behaviour).

We ran our summer school again this year and it was our most successful thus far, involving students from three year groups, graduating students, past students, practicum teachers, university students and teachers from the school.  Student responses on day five were overwhelmingly positive, indicating that the format is working and students can see how it is helping them.  It was interesting to note that the presenters believed we could have been more prepared, yet the students believed we were well prepared indicating that either we can do far better, or that the kids liked the responsiveness created by the flexibility required by being ill prepared.  I'm not sure, but this year, with a plethora of presenters, I wasn't as pressured as in past years (and to all the presenters a big thank you!).

I played a game of LNOE tonight, and it was by far the best zombie game I have played so far.  It plays in under an hour, so I look forward to playing it with the kids.  Should be a bit of fun.

I had a quick look again at the National Curriculum progress, particularly for senior school today, and it was interesting to see how close the descriptions were to WACE outlines, making the transition a little easier.  Having only looked at the essential (Voc type course like MwM or MiPs) and the general course descriptions,  my anxiety levels are dropping as long as we can get the national curriculum courses working in 8, 9, 10.  

I like the new found emphasis on delivering courses to pathways whether office, vocational or university.  It gives guidance to the materials required in a way general courses did not.  It will be interesting to see if course planners can continue to predict the needs of the pathways and stay ahead such that the right students are always available.  Protecting the element of learning for learning's sake is important as it is how we future proof our courses - I would hate to see them only teaching what is required for today's industry.

We're a good team in 2013 and I look forward to some good results.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Speed, Ratios, Unit Conversion and a Scalextric track

I was chosen ("volunteered") to work with students transitioning from year 7 to year 8 this year and needed a hands on lesson to position kids into seeing math as interactive and engaging.  With 30 students of varying levels of engagement that I didn't know well, it can be a little daunting.  In previous years I have chosen algebra or working mathematically, but for a change I chose a measurement topic this year.

My daughter Kensie has a Scalextric track (a common 1/32 slotcar racing system) and I've wondered how fast the cars actually go around the track.  I also had 10m of string, a 1.6m lump of wood and some stopwatches.

First we discussed speed itself and how it is encountered in the real world.  We used the example of travelling on the freeway.  Travelling at 120km/hr, they knew was too fast.  They knew that the value and units (speed) described how fast I was travelling.  We then discussed distance and time.  Students stated that we moved 120km if we travelled for one hour.

We then thought about how it related to our Scalextric track.  I suggested that we build a track long enough that the cars could travel for an hour.  The students then said we could go round the same track for an hour if we knew how long a lap was and then multiply the distance by the number of laps.

I gave a 1.6m ruler to the yr 10 helpers and they tried to measure the track.  The yr 7's laughed and said use the string to determine the exact length of the track.  They lined up around the track and held it in place until the string was in the slot all the way round.  They then removed the string and measured it against the 1.6m ruler.  They tended to take the ruler to the string rather than the string to the ruler which made it a bit awkward (the 1.6m ruler is quite a heavy bit of wood with measurements manually marked on).

We started the cars around the track and discovered that we didn't have enough time for the cars to travel for an hour (it was a 40min lesson) and that it was hard to keep the cars on the track for the whole time.  At the board we then looked at the speed measurement again

Firstly we converted hours to seconds

120 km per hour = 120 km per 1 hr
                           = 120 km per 60 minutes
                           = 2 km per minute (divide the distance by 60 for the distance travelled in 1 min)
                           = 2 km per 60 seconds
                           = 1 km per 30 seconds

Then we converted km to m

                           = 1000 m per 30 seconds (multiply the distance by 1000 to convert km to metres)
                           = ~33 m/s (divide the distance by 30 for the no. of metres travelled in 1 second)

By doing the reverse process we could work out the speed of the cars.

We timed the cars around the track and had a range of answers from the stopwatches timing a lap around the track.  Students suggested averaging the results.  We also discussed doing more than one lap and finding the average lap time.

This left us with a speed of 6m per 4.3s

This became 1.39m /sec and about 5km /hr (repeating the process above in reverse).

.. and no mention of 3.6 anywhere (to all you Physics heads!).  There's another lesson here for another day.


I'd like to continue this in our after school classes with my 11's and 12's for those that find related rates or kinematics difficult.

(This is the worst post for the year, drawing a lousy 3 visitors.. not sure if it is a poor idea or just the time of the year.  It's a shame as it is a good lesson.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Changes in resourcing math classrooms

Over the last five years there has been a change in resourcing mathematics.  Once the domain of the textbook and worksheet, increasingly mathematics is becoming a dynamic and thought provoking class engaging students in a range of activities that go beyond the chalk and talk lesson.


iPads are becoming a go to tool for mathematics classes.  The symbolic data entry problem can be overcome (unlike with laptops) enabling a range of activities.  Tools like Socrative allow formative testing to occur and can help drive students through the learning process.  Organisational issues such as lugging texts, diaries, bringing pens can be reduced to "have you charged your iPad today".  Active lessons requiring spreadsheets and graphs can now be done at the desk, rather than at the computing lab.  Social learning, such as generating texts based on mutual learning of students or sharing of video tutorials between students,  is now possible with increasingly ubiquitous internet access.


iBooks are exciting.  Now with access to math tools, it is easy to generate an iBook/ebook.  Hop into iBooks Author, type up your material for a lesson, issue it to kids. ... but now the process continues ... learn what works in your social context, edit the iBook and re-issue it next year.  Get the kids to comment on how good it is and make relevant changes.  Share the iBook so that others can use your starting point.

Social Learning Networks

Social learning networks take teaching to a new level.  By extending the reach of teachers beyond the classroom, teachers are able to broaden their subject base beyond four hours per week.  Students are able to see what problems other students are having and help out, or get help on a "just in time" basis.


Interactive whiteboards are an easy to implement supplement to teaching.  Remember the days of rubbing off notes three minutes are writing them.  Not being able to go back and revisit notes and remind students that you had already covered a topic.  Not being able to save notes and store them for students to later look at solutions for problems they have not completed.  Being able to display video easily without having to set up projectors or TV's.


Before screencasting I would get frustrated re-teaching the same idea as students became ready for it, based around a need for differentiation in the classroom and being able to present ideas as students were ready for them - scafffolding at the right time.  Now I can generate a series of screencasts and link them together with apps like edmodo (for embedding it within a series of lessons) or prezi (to show how a subject links together).  They also force me to think how I reached an idea and how to better present it.