S.P.A.R.K.L.E. Teaching Practices to Remember

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Found this on Zite today courtesy of Eye on Education. Sometimes we need a bit of a reminder during planning to keep our lessons refreshing and engaging. While there is nothing groundbreaking in the ideas behind this infographic, it’s a useful little tool to have handy next time you fall into the trap of preparing dry, lifeless lessons.

And while I’m just about over educational acronyms, I quite like this one – S.P.A.R.K.L.E.
Sharing Powerful Activities Really Keeps Learners Engaged.

xiPad + yApps + zAirServer = Engaging Algebra

Algebra gets a ‘bum rap’. Then again, it has a lousy public relations manager. Whoever came up with the whole ‘letters and symbols’ campaign should be sacked. Yes, opening up to Exercise 7D and solving 50 variations of 2x + y = -7 is n0t anyone’s idea of fun. But as I said, Algebra needs a new PR campaign.

DISCLAIMER: I’m just a Primary/Elementary teacher without any official qualifications in High Level Mathematics – No Masters, no Ph.D, just an A+ Average in High School/College Maths and 25+ years teaching kids to enjoy,not stress about, Maths. I may be completely off base with the great mathematical minds out there in what I’m about to describe regarding Algebra but I make no apologies. my students get it this way – including the Year 7-11 students I’ve tutored at home to relieve the confusion caused at their schools. (WARNING: Bear with me, I’ll take a while to get to the point of this post’s title – skip ahead if you want to ignore my Algebra rant!)

Now we have that out of the way, back to my message for today. I have a certain belief about Algebra. I define it as a systematic way of organising, recording and explaining your mathematical thinking using numbers and symbols/letters instead of words and pictures. Where we seem to get lost is that we go straight to the symbol without developing the thinking through the words and pictures/objects. We provide no context or purpose; just a meaningless string of equations with Xs and Ys that need to be solved. I see Algebra as problem solving support, not equation solving.

Last week, I was called in to take a Grade 6 class to release a teacher for planning ( the usual release teachers were unavailable). Maths was on the agenda for the day and I had worked with some of the other Grade 6 students on a similar lesson earlier in the week as a support for some of the high achievers. This time, though, I was on my own and in control so I applied my full tech+Maths kit to the group of students I had for that session.

The lesson/task that preceded this actually had fractions as its focus. One of the teachers had introduced a task involving a a building pattern for shading in grids to make fractions.

The lesson was differentiated to allow for a range of responses. Some needed to build the patterns with counters to discover anything. And then there was “Sheldon” ( not the boy’s real name) whom I walked in on to find him showing his mate the formula for the relationship between square and triangular numbers! When I confronted “Sheldon” to explain his formula and why it worked, he didn’t know how. So began my challenge and the rationale behind the lesson I’m about to recount. In the end, Sheldon actually discovered the key to this lesson I led in the class I took later in the week.

SO…this fraction lesson turned into a pattern and algebra exploration. All the children were able to discover the growing patterns in both number sequences and could describe the change. Square number differences increased by +2, the triangular number differences increased by +1. But that additive thinking was as far as they got. They needed more support to think multiplicatively, to think ‘Algebra’.

Enter (finally we get to the title of this blogpost!) the iPad and AirServer. Yes, I could have done all of this without the technology. I had done so earlier in the week with my small group of advanced students. But the engagement and ease of use was no comparison between the ‘sheets of paper and coloured marker’ group and the iPad and AirServer. If you are unaware of AirServer, I explained its significance in a recent post. Basically it projects multiple iPad screens onto a computer connected to a projector/iWB.

We started with creating the fraction grids using the iPad App Hands On Maths Color  Tiles ( I reviewed this and others in the Hands On Maths collection last year ). Again, we could have hand drawn grids or made them with counters but I had the students more engaged by getting them to make 1 grid each using Color Tiles and getting multiple students to project their grid onto the whiteboard using AirServer. This took 1 minute instead of 10 and allowed us to move straight into discussion with all the visuals needed on the screen – created by students, not me.

We then discussed the three properties visible in these tiles – side length, square size and the shaded (red here) area ( they hadn’t recognised them as triangles yet). I introduced the problem solving strategy of ‘Make a table’ – a strategy that should be embedded in their thinking by now, but it wasn’t. I created the table on my iPad and projected it on the screen. The students then created their own tables, using Numbers, on their iPads and filled in the side lengths, square sizes and shaded areas. Once they had the numbers in tables, they could start looking for relationships in numbers across the properties, rather than just look at the isolated number sequences. It was at this point that some students were able to recgognise that the shaded area numbers increased by adding on the next side length.

From that discovery, some children then saw that by adding the side length e.g. 4 to the square number 16 ( by this time we had recognised these as square numbers, not just square size), 20 the shaded area was half the size – 10. Here we talked about the importance of proving our theory by testing with other numbers. EVERY child in the class then tested this out with the other numbers, using Explain Everything as a whiteboard to quickly write out equations and project them on the screen to show their proof. Again, this could have been done on paper but by spotlighting everyone through the AirServer iPad mirroring it engaged those children who more often than not pretend to do the work and then let the teacher pleasers to put their hands up and call out the answers. This process really had everyone involved at all times. Some of the less than stellar mathematicians were excited about this discovery. But we were not finished.

I wanted them to see what type of numbers they were creating with the shaded areas – most still didn’t realise. This time I went back to old school methods –

counters. AirServer and my iPad still played a role. I asked the group to use the counters to create the sequence of numbers in the shaded area column in rows. As they began, some weren’t sure what to do. Instead of telling them what to do, I used my iPad’s camera to spotlight pairs who were building triangles onto the screen, thus giving support to others who needed a hint. Every group then wanted their triangles on the screen as well! This idea of spotlighting using iPad and AirServer can work in many ways to maintain engagement – kids like to be on show and recognised .

Once this was done, the students realised they were creating square and triangular numbers and that there was a relationship between them. Children started to recall the rule we had discovered – square the side plus the side then half it gave us the triangular number. But I posed one final challenge – why does this work and how can we show it with our tiles to explain the relationship? Back to Color Tiles we went. We recreated our two coloured square tile pattern. Then we added an extra column/side length. Bingo! The students recognised that this created two equal halfs, a red and yellow half- two triangular numbers!

4×4 Square with extra column of 4 results in two equal shaded areas- triangular numbers!

The final step in the process now was to put all of these theories into one explanation and come up with a formula – finally Algebra was coming into play. The important thing here is that they were thinking algebraically all along – I just didn’t tell them because Algebra is such a dirty word. Now they were quite excited that they were doing algebra.

I asked them to take screenshots of the tiles and the table and import them into Explain Everything. Then we looked at the table again. I explained that the only difference between what we had been doing and algebra was that we needed to replace our words and ideas with letters and symbols. What was the starting point? The side lengths. What will we call them – we decided on s ( could have been x,y, l etc). What is the square number? s x s or s^2. What did we do next? +s. Finally we halved the total ÷2 . With all these symbolic represenations students were able to create a formula for finding a triangular number: (s^2 +s)/2

Now thinking they were expert mathematicians, the students were able to record their understandings in Explain Everything AND find any square and triangular number without creating a long sequence. And they got it because we started with the thinking and investigating, not the formula that “Sheldon’ told us about. By the way, he worked this out independently and actually helped out my thinking with the idea of adding the extra side to the square grid – that’s the first time I had visualised the two triangular halves. This shows that our high achieving students can support the learning in the class – they just need a biy of guidance in their thinking, He was happy with knowing the formula. Now he UNDERSTANDS the formula and why it works. His discovery helped the less able students to also understand the thinking behind it all. And the iPad, the apps  and AirServer kept them engaged long enough to get there.

Oh, one more thing. I mentioned earlier context and purpose. I put this whole task in the context of a tile designing company. I talked about how the construction of Federation Square ( a modern structure in the City of Melbourne laden with geometric designs ) was not a random design. It was very mathematical. I put to them the scenario of customers wanting a design like the one we investigated created at a size of their own choosing. As employees of the company, we needed a method for quickly calculating how many of each tile we would need – the formula we discovered would get the job done.

Algebra need not be hard. It’s just logical thinking written down in an organised, symbolic way. Taking students through the right process can demystify it all. And it doesn’t hurt to use a bit of tech like my good friends the iPad and AirServer to help them along the way.

5 Factors to Real Change

Scanning Twitter feeds today, I came across a Chart showing the 5 factors needed for Successful Change. After a bit of research, I linked it back to “The Art of Leadership” by Manning and Curtis (Manning, George, and Kent Curtis. “Part 2 – The Power of Vision.” The Art of Leadership. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2003. 56-66. Print.) Below is the relevant excerpt of the book courtesy of Google Books.


 

This is my version of the Change Chart

While I recall seeing this years ago, it comes as a timely reminder to all involved in massive change that is expected in schools today. It is quite confronting viewing this chart and reflecting on what is needed for REAL, long lasting change to take place. Schools are always clear on the need for a Vision. Of course that vision needs to be clear, committed and shared by all stakeholders in a school, including parents and students. It’s why we have so many surveys asking for their opinions on curriculum. If we as teachers embrace a particular curriculum change but it is not supported at home, then it makes teaching and learning difficult, when children are getting mixed message from home and school.

Skills need to be developed for change to take place or teachers can’t implement the changes required. Professional Development that makes a difference and available to all staff is vital. School communities need to see a final result that is going to lead to improved teaching and learning outcomes. This is how I define Incentive in the School Change setting. If we don’t access the required Resources to implement the change envisaged in the School’s Vision, it won’t occur. All the good intentions in the world are no substitute for the actual staffing, equipment and training required. Finally, a clear Action Plan is required to make it all happen. Change takes time. Time needs to be managed. Management requires planning.

Looking at these 5 factors in their totality, it is not surprising that real change in Educational Technology is so difficult. Too often, we put the Resources in place without the Skills to use them. We jump on the latest tool or idea without planning how it can be implemented effectively. We put together a wish list of short term plans but lack a Vision for the final result. And so often, we fail to articulate how it is actually going to help/improve the teaching and learning in the classroom and result in better outcomes, failing to provide an incentive to change current practices.

And the result? Frustrated, anxious teachers who struggle to learn the skills required and don’t see how it is going to improve their teaching and the student’s learning. At a system level, we pump money into resources for short term gain but then run out of money to maintain resources before teachers are ready to take advantage of them after decent training based on a purposeful action plan. We then hop back on the treadmill and chase the next change without actually ever reaching the goal our vision sets.

IF we are ever going to really fulfil the vision of all those wonderful orators who inspire us at conferences, on blogs and online TEDTalks, we need to consider all these factors. Educational Technology has been floating around school for a over quarter of a century. Sometimes we seem no closer to the Holy Grail of learning change than when those first Apple IIs were rolled out  all those years ago.

How effective is brainstorming at your school? (infographic and commentary)

The infographic below ( click on it to get a larger, readable version from the source) stimulates good discussion about the process of brainstorming. While its reference point is the business world,  brainstorming is clearly an oft-used and abused strategy in both classes and staff meetings at school. While we have developed this strategy somewhat with techniques like Think-Pair-Share, we can still fall back on the traditional model when strapped for time, with far from stellar outcomes.

While this infographic focuses on brainstorming, I think its message resonates across all forms of group work that occurs in schools, involving both students and teachers. I think it deserves reflection.

The following points are what I connected with as I read through the infographic.

THE FIVE BIGGEST PROBLEMS WITH GROUPTHINK

  1. SOCIAL LOAFING – common in both student and staff settings, it is human nature to sit back and allow others to do the work if they are happy to. I see this at all forms of meetings involving school staff and it is particularly common in classrooms during whole class lessons. This is when you see the same 8 teacher pleasers and high achievers constantly contribute and give the teacher a false sense of success in getting the message of the lesson through. There needs to be protocols set in place so that all group members are accountable for contributing.
  2. SOCIAL MATCHING – Allowing group participants to choose their group members is fraught with danger. Amongst both children and adults, less dominating friends are loathe to disagree with their opinionated mates and very little innovation and debate occurs. Being in a group with leadership is also difficult if you have to go straight into groupdiscussion. Few challenge the boss without preparation.
  3. PRODUCTION BLOCKING – Dominant speakers not only take up air time but being forced to listen to them takes away opportunities for others to think about their opinions and ideas. This is one of the biggest dangers of group brainstorming – the first good idea expressed is accepted and stifles creative thinking and discussion.
  4. LACK OF ATTENTION – Large groups gives members an easy way to disengage. There is always someone contributing so the rest can switch off, allowing some to hide away during the entire discussion and avoid thinking.
  5. FEAR OF CRITICISM OR REJECTION – Anonymity is important sometimes. Processes that collect ideas without leaders/teachers  knowing the source can allow reticent participants to share their opinions and ideas. Ideas can then be challenged, not the person. And, who knows, that idea you though your teacher or leader was going to hate..may end up being the best one offered.
TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE BRAINSTORMING
Independently prepare – While we are getting better at this for prepared Brainstorming sessions, I still think there are too many instances when we go straight to discussion without allowing for preparation. It happens in both classrooms and staff meetings. Often the only one prepared is the organiser who then dominates discussion. Even during general class time, there needs to be time for ALL students to think about a response, Teachers should monitor potential responses and catch a typically reluctant child with a good answer to call upon. Agendas need to go beyond dot points and elicit responses from participants by providing some questions and details to consider.
Set a Goal – Too often, thinking stops because we think we have finished. Clear goals or criteria (set the bar high but achieable), whether time or quantity based,  laid out at the beginning focuses participants on maintaining engagement in the task.
Have Meeting facilitators – Regardless of group size or duration of task, group leaders maintain focus on the task, This needs to be attended to during any group related task. Accountability creates attentiveness.
Avoid criticism – Both agree and disagree on this one. We can’t avoid being challenged – it is a necessary fact of life – but we do need to ensure the attack is on the idea, not the ‘man’. It’s why I believe in anonymity initially, time for everyone to
carefully reflect on ideas before responding and a requirement that you have a justification or alternative to the idea raised. Negativity without a practical reason is unacceptable.
Encourage competition – We avoid this too much in schools today. While we are after quality over quantity, you often get neither if there is no incentive. The aforementioned goal/criteria is the starting point. Competition is the finisher. Hear someone’s ideas. Allow for others to present something better in response. Competition encourages greater effort. Lack of it discourages trying.
Try Collaboration Apps  – Never one to pass on an opportunity to sell technology as a solution, I have had great success over the last couple of years using apps like Edmodo for brainstorming ideas. It addresses many of the problems mentioned above, Be forewarned though. It requires very stringent protocols to be in place lest unsavoury flame wars break out a la Apple vs PC vs Android nonsense. Monitoring and rules must always apply, even ( sometimes especially ) at the adult level.
Group work/brainstorming is a staple of the Education system. Sometimes, though, we take the process for granted, and get less than satisfactory outcomes as a result. We must always plan for these opportunities and I think this infographic is a useful resource to have beside you every time you are considering a brainstorm session.
How do you prepare for group work or brainstorming? Join the conversation.

Getting to know the child behind the test score

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I had a great experience today with a student who has recently arrived in our country. The time I spent with her made me consider how assessments and test scores can overly influence our opinions of students, Especially if we don’t take the time to get to know the child behind the score.

“Gloria” (not her real name, just paying homage to my favourite sitcom, “Modern Family”) has recently arrived from South America. She knows enough English to talk to others and understand most instructions. The start of the school year brings with it a barrage of standardised

assessments to identify the needs of individual students. They serve a purpose in preparing personalised learning programs for children who need both intervention and extension. But raw numbers don’t tell us the full picture. Gloria is a classic example. She scored low in the standard spelling test administered by her classroom teacher. So did many others.

Because of the results, targeted spelling programs were developed to support these students beyond the main class spelling program. Gloria was included in these programs with support from teacher aides. Let me make it clear right here. Teacher aides are fantastic support in classroom. For children with learning difficulties, teacher aides are vital for them to survive the classroom struggle on a daily basis. But sometimes kids with low test scores don’t need teacher aides – they need teaching.

Gloria didn’t score low on the spelling test because of a learning difficulty. She didn’t score low because of a physical disorder or because she has emotional issues that have affected her concentration over the years. Gloria scored low because she speaks Spanish! She doesn’t need a teacher aide to sit with her and work through a worksheet of spelling words. She needs a teacher who has sat down with her, listened to her read words, watched her write words and recognized that her errors were based on the different sounds found in the Spanish language.

I had my first extended experience with Gloria by chance this week. The teacher aide who has been working with her was away and her teacher asked me to step in and take the group, as I was between jobs that morning. As soon as I was handed the spelling worksheet assigned for the week, which was addressing the ‘j’ sound (spelt g-,j-,-dge, -ge), my years of background knowledge in languages through applied linguistics training and Latin rang alarm bells in my head. This was going to be a big challenge for Gloria for one simple reason – j is not j in Spanish and the -dge grapheme doesn’t even exist. This needed to be addressed with Gloria, not because she was a bad speller, but because she had no experience with this spelling system.

While working with Gloria ( and the other two students who were more interested in what was happening at the other end of the building, hence their need for a teacher aide to keep them on task), I discovered a girl with a rich knowledge of her mother tongue’s spelling system. While still interacting with the other students equitably, I was drawn into deep conversations about the similarities of g in Spanish and English, depending on the vowel that followed. We had great dialogues about the different use of e and the end of Spanish words. We notice similarities in letter combinations between the equivalent words in each language like jirafa and giraffe. While reading words in the spelling list on the worksheet, I picked up other issues that were not spelling related but Spanish phonics related. It makes sense that Gloria can’t spell luggage because a Spanish speaker would pronounce it ‘loogage’. U makes one sound in Spanish, in English it makes 2, one of which doesn’t exist in Spanish.

Gloria knows a great deal about spelling conventions, but in Spanish. She doesn’t need a remedial spelling program; she needs an English enrichment program. She understood what we discussed during this lesson we had. The other two just chose some words to learn during the week that they will probably get correct in a test next week but not relate to other experiences of the ‘j’ sound in their writing. Students like Gloria need more than a test score to work them out – they need teachers to get to know them.

I’ve had the same experiences during the Mathematics interviews I’ve been conducting this term. The interviewees were selected based on low test scores. During the interviews, though, I found students with sophisticated mental computation strategies that, based on reading test scores, were having literacy issues not numeracy issues. For others, we discovered why they survived to a certain grade level at an acceptable standard then suddenly dropped alarmingly – they were completely reliant on counting by ones for everything.

Standardised testing and the resultant scores are good indicators for potential learning difficulties or strengths. But they’re no substitute for face to face interactions. And sometimes that one on one interaction needs an experienced hand to really pinpoint the need. I’m committed to working with Gloria as much as I can this year. If our chance meeting didn’t occur, she could have spent the year only working with a teacher aide group with students with learning difficulties. We can’t let the push for standardised testing, even at the diagnostic rather than school comparison level, blind us from the fact we need to get to know our students more intimately. We owe it to the Glorias in our classrooms.

AirServer – 30 Apple TVs for the price of One (and instant sharing and engagement in the Classroom)

This is not a Plug. I actually happily used AirServer’s competitor, Reflector, before I discovered AirServer, and it has some features AirServer lacks ( namely the ability to record the iPad screen in action on your computer). I also am a happy owner of an AppleTV at home.

What is your tech of choice for getting groups of children interacting with technology? Interactive Whiteboards? I was a big fan early on. I used to prepare my whole day on my computer at home with all my lessons set up on the software available and come to school all ready to go, After a while I saw a teacher ( or an individual student – maybe two) standing in front of an expensive whizzbang electronic version of a blackboard, doing the same chalk and talk method we’d been doing for decades. A lot of money invested, not sure if it was value for money. What about Apple TV? Much cheaper than iWBs, able to mirror iPads on screen, pass the iPad around to engage children in the learning, but still only one at a time. You still need a screen, TV or iWB, and it’s still a fair investment at $99-$129 ( depending on country) per Apple TV.

Last year, I discovered a better AND cheaper alternative. First it was Reflector, then AirServer. Both were originally Mac OS X only apps, then limited PC versions without audio, but now regardless of operating system you get the full feature set. So what is AirServer? ( I often assume everyone in Tech and using iPads has heard of everything I use but I always discover it’s not the case.)

AirServer is basically a MAC/PC app that turns your computer into a mirroring device for iPads, iPhones and iPods ( depending on the version you have) as well as Mac Laptops running Mountain Lion . Your entire iDevice screen appears on the computer screen and whatever you do on the iPad et al, is seen AND heard on the computer screen. Connected to a iWB, data projector (and speakers) or LCD TV, an AirServer enabled computer becomes an Apple TV. The creators were, and probably still are, more interested in marketing it as a way for iPads to replace Wii/Xbox/Playstations as a game console on a big screen, but I see it as a far greater tool for education, IF you are serious about iPad implementation at your school.

 Compared to Apple TV, or a iWB with software included,AirServer + iPad has several advantages.

First the price. Check the screenshot above. $3.99 per computer! For that price, we are virtually fitting out our whole school with Apple TV functionality for the price of one Apple TV.

Portability and ease of connectivity. Last year, when we first started using iPads in the classrooms, if we wanted to show what was on the screen, we had to attach an iPad VGA connector to the VGA cable and remain tethered to the iWB. With AirServer, you just swipe up ( or double click Home Button)swipe across on the iPad App switcher bar at the bottom, hit the AirPlay Button and the iPad is on the screen. You can even do it from another room.

Multi-view. This is the ‘game changer’ ( ugh! I swore I’d never use that cliched buzzword but…). The biggest difference between Apple TV (0nly one screen at a time) and AirServer is the fact that you can mirror multiple iDevice screens on the computer/iWB/TV screen at the same time. Instead of waiting for control of the whiteboard pen, students and teachers can just project their iPad screen straight onto the larger screen. No longer do we have to wait for the teacher of student to finish writing on the board and then getting out of the way so we can actually see it. The work that is done on the iPad screen can be instantly shared without wasting time reproducing it on the iWB. Time saved, time used more productively. This has so many possibilities in the classroom.

  • A Maths classroom where multiple strategies created by the students are shared simultaneously and discussed.
  • A Literacy classroom where students can share their notes, collaboratively write paragraphs, edit shared texts and compare choices, or share drafts for others to read to feedback on, with the writer making real time changes as the feedback comes.
  • Multiple videos showing different views of the same event or object.
  • A music classroom using Garageband with children combining different instruments at the same time to create a digital orchestra,combine parts of the same song for harmonies or multitrack experimentation or simply share their individual creations wirelessly.
  • A Science classroom where different observations, diagrams, videos of experiments are shared and compared.
  • A video and text can be played simultaneously to compare and contrast how a particular part of the story is portrayed in different media.
  • Ideas can be shared concurrently instead of waiting for turns, allowing students and teachers to focus on a specific point of their choice rather than waiting for turns.
  • Collaborative teams presenting the work without having to spend time cobbling all their individual efforts together into a single PowerPoint/Prezi etc. Each student can just mirror their iPad on the screen at the same time and control a video, audio clip, slideshow, comic strip, ebook, themselves.

Multiple iOS devices on the one screen

I could list many more possible uses but I’ll let you brainstorm for yourself. Feel free to share here. Remember, all the screens are fully operational at the same time. That includes App switching, multiple audio,video and game playback at the same time, file editing, and with very little lag time ( depending on your wi-fi quality, of course.) I have mirrored seven iPad screens on the iWB at the same time but there comes a time when they get too small to view. Of course, you can select a single screen to enlarge to full screen, while the others remain connected in the background, waiting their turn to take centre stage. (UPDATE:apologies for being slightly misleading here: while this is certainly a very useful feature on Mac computers, this enlarging function doesn’t seem to be available on PCs. Hopefully, this will be added in a Future update. I spend most of my time on Macs with AirServer and I will update if other features aren’t available on PCs at our schools. Sorry for the misinformation. Should have checked)
It’s easy to set up, a couple of swipes and clicks to activate and cheap compared to the alternatives. Reflector, which I discovered before AirServer has similar functionality plus the ability to record what is mirrored. The big difference, and its not a plug but reality, is the price difference.Individually, there is little difference but when it comes to bulk purchasing, $3.99 per computer versus $55 for 5 computer licences made AirServer my only choice in the end. Both are great, though, and have the potential ( I hate using that word but….) to make a big difference to educational technology and education in general if done properly.

Download AirServer and give it a go. You can download a 7 day trial for free to see if it works in your school environment before you spend the money.

And again, please add your suggestions to my list of uses by posting a comment.

Standardised testing – Who’s at fault? System, teacher or student? Pt 2 Teacher/Student

” And something else that matters more, we’ve taught you how to think!”

Wise words from Miss Bonkers from the pages of “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!”, Dr Seuss'(with help from Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith) tribute to creativity in schools over standardisation. I open with this YouTube reading of this terrific story as I present my stance on the impact Teachers and their students have on the issue of Standardised testing. This is a follow up post to my take on the System’s successes and failures regarding this concern in education.

As teachers, we work our fingers to the bone to teach our children in the most creative and engaging ways possible. We spend hours each week resourcing quality materials, planning great lessons to get the most out of our students. Then state/national standardised testing time comes around and we completely change our teaching style and focus.

From teaching multiple strategies in Mathematics that will enable our students to be independent, ‘mental calculating’ problem solvers, we suddenly shift back to algorithms and arithmetic drills to prepare them for those quick response multiple choice tests that come by once a year. After months of sharing in the joys of literature and expressing creativity through so many media forms, we cram blocks of texts and lists of question and answer practice sessions into 3 weeks of preparation before the big Literacy test. Five months later when the results finally show up, we sit dismayed that all that effort we put in practising for the test led to little or no change in the previous years’ score. What we don’t get is that, despite the old saying, practice doesn’t make perfect.

If all we do is teach our students how to take a test by giving them superficial tips like ” two of the answers don’t make sense so it really just comes down to a couple of choices” ( not realising that we might sense that there are two stupid choices in the multiple choice options but a 9 year old doesn’t), little will be achieved for those who need to improve. If we think pointing out some key words and phrases that will probably come up in the test next week will make a difference when we can’t possibly predict every word that may appear, children will continue to stress and panic, selecting the first response that includes something they are familiar with. Why else would a child select the “Dogs chase cats” option after reading text that mentions animals of different sizes ( including dogs and cats) and the correct answer is obvious to us ” Animals come in different shapes and sizes?” What’s missing here is a lack of logic from the child…..and this is key to the problem we are perpetuating too often as teachers. We are not teaching the students to THINK.

Before a child can read a book, he can THINK about the book’s meaning, events and characters in conversation with their teacher or parents. Before a child understands what + and ÷ means she can THINK about what happens when you put two groups together or share lollies with your friends and families. Before a child can sort out the difference between isosceles and equilateral triangles, she can THINK about how to put blocks together to build a toy house. THINK about how Lego blocks can teach children about arrays and counting patterns. THINK about how we can argue about issues in their lives before a child knows how to construct a persuasive essay with paragraphs for each argument or even spell or write. As schools and Education departments, let’s start THINKING about a THINKING curriculum.

Phonics is important. Word recognition is vital. Being Level 28 by the end of Grade 2 is a must. It’s all pointless, though, if we have achieved all this without emphasising the importance of THINKING along the way. No Thinking equals no comprehension equals failed reading test. Rote counting is needed but not if the counter isn’t THINKING about what he is counting, why he is counting and is actually counting something. Any skill isolated from THINKING is not helping a child grow as a rational, problem solving student.

Dangerously Irrelevant’s Scott MacLeod, referencing a blogpost by Kevin ‘Doc’ Dougherty reflects on the importance of teaching above the test, not to the test. We need to get our students to struggle. Struggle leads to THINKING. THINKING leads to the ability to look at a question in a standardised test and logically work through a process that leads to a correct answer. I’ve been doing lots of focused standardised tests lately, not in preparation for the upcoming NAPLAN tests in May, but to identify student skill levels so we can plan differentiated programs for them. In watching the students, the number of times they are making irrational choices for answers is astounding. They’re not THINKING.

Yes, there is unfamiliar but relevant vocabulary in these tests that we have disregarded in the past. We are addressing that and exposing the students to a more sophisticated and varied language, struggle and all.As observing teachers, we are beginning to recognise that we are not presenting problems in our day to day teaching ( not test preparation ) in the variety of ways problems are presented in these tests. We are teaching down, dumbing down, teaching to the lower end of the scale, call it what you like. If we force feed every step of the process, explain every instruction without letting children struggle to work out what the instructions or questions mean, always present mathematical problems as numbers rather than written or visual problems, we let them down. We fail to teach them to THINK. So we are now making sure our presentation of problems, information and texts in general are varied and challenging.

So while it is an exaggerated work of fiction, lets look to Miss Bonkers and the school in Diffendoofer for guidance. Yes we need standardised testing to check progress and assess learning. Yes we need to see if our students are performing to a standard that is accepted across the country. But we do not have to teach the content of a test or how to take a test. We need to teach them how to THINK.

Leadership Qualities – how close to the mark are you?

Leadership Qualities
CMOE

Came across this infographic in my Scoop-It feed this morning and I couldn’t resist reflecting on its message. Schools are awash with opportunities for leadership building and modelling at 3 distinct levels – Peer Leadership (School Leadership teams/Curriculum leadership teams or individuals), Teacher-leading-Class and Student Leadership. It is telling to ponder the impact these 8 key leadership qualities can have in improving school environments and, as a result, performances.

 Peer Leadership: The keyword for me here is PROACTIVE. Tough decision making means knowing what may go wrong but being a believer in what can go right. Courageous leadership means not reacting to every bad standardised test result and looking for another solution because Plan A didn’t work straight away. This just leads to one unfinished project after another that never really leads to sustained improvement and consistent achievement. Real change and improvement takes time. Courageous leaders know this and can face the short term criticism that may come their way.

Teacher-leading-Class: We can’t expect one lesson to solve all learning difficulties in one go. Teachers have to have faith in programs that have been proven to be successful elsewhere and not cave in to change because things haven’t gone smoothly straight away. Students get confused with constant change and won’t learn to persist if we don’t.

Student Leadership: To prepare our students for the future, we need to develop courageous decision making skills in them. Good brainstorming  and discussions of positives and negatives are essential in this preparation.

Peer Leadership: Probably my biggest drawback is thinking of myself as the expert who has all the answers, although through blogging, Twitter and Edmodo I have come to accept that others have insight and skills I don’t possess. Other key messages out of the Humility point here is not putting yourself above others and telling colleagues you are leading to do things while contributing little yourself. Less experienced teachers want to contribute and develop; but they also crave advice from leaders. Leaders have to get in and do the hard yards with their teams, not delegate in the name of distributive leadership and take credit without contributing.

Teacher-leading-Class: Recognise the contribution your students can make to the learning in your grade. Share the front of the class with others, whether they be students or other staff who can contribute to the teaching and learning. Give credit to others who contributed if improvement is noticed. MOst likely you didn’t do it alone.

Student Leadership: Don’t over emphasise one group of students over the other. Make sure everyone has a chance to contribute. ‘Catch’ the quiet achievers and the less able succeeding and encourage them to share their learning so that the ‘smart kids’ in the grade realise they aren’t the only ones who know stuff. Give everyone the expectation to lead so that the regular leaders don’t get ahead of themselves.

Peer Leadership: Distributive Leadership should not be used as a way of handing all responsibility over to others so they can take the fall for problems. Everyone is responsible for every result. When survey results show some issues exist, don’t look for excuses why the questions and results could have been misinterpreted. Analyse critically and reflect on what could be the real reasons. If we don’t take the time to find out why and accept these reasons, improvement won’t happen.

Teacher-leading-Class: Sometimes, it is the teacher’s fault. We were not adequately prepared, we didn’t address the learning gaps effectively, we over-reacted and got too emotional, we didn’t stay focused. If we have a hard class, we have to work harder. If we have a dream class, we should still be working hard to extend them. It is easy to lay the blame on the class, and they can contribute to the problem. But if they see a teacher always passing the buck, they will learn to be unaccountable. Sometimes they don’t have good role models in being accountable in their lives; we need to be that role model.

Student Leadership: Our students do need to learn what accountability is about. In group work situations, ownership for results has to be attributed to those responsible, for success and failures. If a child makes poor choices, he need to be made aware of that  and there has to be logical consequences. If students are going to develop leadership skills, they have to learn to be accountable. They can’t rely on parents or teachers to do it all for them.

 Peer Leadership: In the words of Jesus of Nazareth,” Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Also known as “practise what you preach”, Trust isn’t earned by leaders who are inconsistent. Don’t expect hard work if you don’t work hard. Don’t expect others to give if you only take. Don’t play colleagues off against each other. GIve credit where credit’s due and give criticism where criticism’s due. Respond to criticism of yourself honestly, admit fault and be open about how you can improve.

Teacher-leading-Class: All of the above. If your students see you admitting fault, following the advice you dish out to them, acting the way you said you would, they will learn what being trustworthy means. Explain yourself if you change your mind, be consistent towards all students, don’t hold grudges, start each day afresh without any agendas against individuals despite their previous sins. One thing children react to is fairness. They may not always like what we do, but they accept it if it is fair and consistent.

Student Leadership: Be the role model mentioned above so students can learn what being trustworthy is all about. Have high expectations of them and demand consistency and honesty. Expect them to explain their actions and own up to their actions. Demand they co-operate with each other and follow through on work that is expected to be done collaboratively.

Peer Leadership: Keep lines of communication open at all times between meetings so discussions can continue beyond the meeting. Have high expectations that everyone contributes consistently. Be honest. Don’t put your grievances forward in the car park. Be professional. Allow for disagreement. Expect disagreement. Respect disagreement.

Teacher-leading-Class: Don’t dominate the conversation in class. Use technology to allow for everyone to share their opinions. Have high expectations that every child will contribute. Set up an environment that allows this to happen. Allow for disagreement. Expect disagreement. Respect disagreement.

Student Leadership: Don’t allow small pockets of students to dominate the class discussion. Don’t expect silence in class at all times. Teach students HOW to listen and respond. It’s not a simple skill. Give students a forum for discussion of issues. Allow for disagreement. Expect disagreement. Respect disagreement.

Peer Leadership: Passion is the keyword for me in this little grab. You have to be convincing about your plans. Going through the motions to tick off a list of recommendations does not bring about lasting change. Related to Courage earlier, leaders who are convinced about and committed to their vision will be able to battle through the inevitable pitfalls. Allowing plans to fall by the wayside because something else comes up does not bring about lasting change. Leaders need to stay true ot their convictions.

Teacher-leading-Class: Students have very good ‘lack of commitment’ sensors. They know when a teacher is going through the motions and they respond accordingly. Take them on a passionate journey of discovery and even the toughest ones will join you. They will commit to the cause too. But they will jump ship just as quickly if you don’t maintain the rage.

Student Leadership: If we cut students off every time they discover a passion worth pursuing, they will lose the courage of their convictions quite quickly. We need passionate, committed leaders for the future. Too many politicians show students that its OK to change your mind every time a poll doesn’t go your way. We have to develop the quality of conviction in our students as future leaders.

Peer Leadership: Collaborative decision making does not equal universal agreement but it also doesn’t mean contrived discussion on an issue a group of leaders have already made a decision on. Collaboration takes time, communication, honest feedback ( giving and receiving), evidence based opinions and creativity. It doesn’t happen as a result of 2-3 disconnected meetings over a time frame of 6-8 weeks. Leaders today need to embrace the collaborative nature of technology that allows for constant discussions, sharing of new research, arguing points of view without being verbally cut off mid sentence and time for reflection.

Teacher-leading-Class: All of the above. One of the 4 Cs of 21st Learning is Collaboration. We have the tools in our classrooms to embrace this well. Teachers can show how to be collaborative leaders by allowing this technology to take over the day to day running of discussions. Too often, collaboration is mistaken for brainstorming and sharing.

Student Leadership: Ditto. Students have to be taught how to collaborate. Group work is not dividing tasks up and getting the dedicated students to do most of the work.

Peer Leadership: “Moving beyond your own personal agenda” – Love that statement! ( and I’m as guilty as anyone of pushing my own agenda) You can have all of the other qualities listed above but it all falls apart if we are divided. While curriculum teams need their own meeting times, decisions have to be made with all involved present at all times. Last time I looked ,there are still only 24 hours in a day and 5 working days in a school week. If we added up the hours individual curriculum leaders needed to achieve their goals, there would need to be a substantial shift in the nature of the space-time continuum for it to actually occur. Splinter groups can’t solve the issue but committed discussion that involves aligning goals and finding ways to combine goals, targets and agenda can.

Teacher-leading-Class: Not so much with the students but more at planning level, team members need to align their individual passions and challenges to ensure a balanced curriculum for the students.

Student Leadership: Teaching compromise is a starting point here. Granted, it can be hard for children.

I’m under no illusions that I am any great role model for leadership. I choose teaching children over leading schools every year (although I have spent many years on leadership teams by virtue of my skill set and experience). Nevertheless, you don’t have to wear a badge that says Principal or Co-ordinator to understand the qualities and behaviours needed by leaders. Many schools need improving in this world of ours. These Leadership qualities are vital for success.

Standardised testing – Who’s at fault? System, teacher or student? Pt 1 – The System.

I had been planning to weigh in on the Standardised Testing debate for a while now. Then I spotted this article titled The four biggest myths of the anti-testing backlash and decided to put my ‘two cents worth’ in.

First of all, don’t call me a fence sitter, but I can see what both sides are saying. And that’s part of the problem with the whole debate. It’s just two sides not listening to the other’s point of view. Being a quasi/mutant part teacher, part leader composite being, I get to discuss the postives and negatives of testing with many stakeholders and this is where it all sits with me.

The System Level.

At system level, no one has a coherent, unified explanation of the purpose of Standardised Testing. Is it for tracking student progress or achievement? Is it a means of evaluating the performance of schools, teachers or students? Is it a “one off snapshot of performance to get a general picture of student achievement to be used alongside school/teacher recorded data to build a profile of a student’s strengths and weaknesses” ( phew!) or is it the all important indicator of school and teacher performance that takes precedence over all other evidence of achievement before or after the test? Are we meant to use the results to guide curriculum and school planning or work with the results at a one to one level to build on Individual Learning Plans for students? Are the results intended for educational experts or meant to be published by newspapers and government websites to pigeonhole schools into rankings based on a one off event? Over the years, I hear and see all of these scenarios played out all the time and the end results too often don’t result in targeted learning improvements because we get bogged down in definitions of purpose and mixed agendas.

Testing is necessary. In a mobile, global society, there needs to be some standard we have to set for the typical 10 year old if one year their Dad’s job takes him to Thailand and the next year he ends up in Dubai. Results can be used effectively. Trends can be found at a class or school level that can be addressed quickly. Results can generate purposeful planning conversations based on actual data rather than teacher intuition or generalisations based on a small sample group. Done well, students and their parents can get timely feedback that they can use to address strengths and weaknesses quickly, not when they get their report five months later. Despite what we think, many students like competition and like to know how they are performing against their best mate or nemesis. So I am not against the concept of standardised testing. I have issues with its perceived purpose.

I’ve spent the last 3 weeks at school using a lot of standardised tests. We believe at the leadership level, we have a clear purpose for these tests. The On Demand testing we are using online with entire Grade Levels can give us a snapshot of who is below, at and above standard. From there we plan programs to address needs of groups of students. It’s instant feedback – which is a massive advantage over the ridiculous 5 month waiting period for NAPLAN ( Australia’s nation wide standardised testing program) . The minute the student finishes the test, we can bring up overall and question by question results. But the amount of data can be overwhelming at the micro-level and too general at a macro level. More importantly for me, raw numbers and right and wrong answers tell me what the student can’t do BUT it doesn’t tell me why.

That’s why a more effective form of standardised testing is the one on one interview. Too time consuming to do with every student and often too pointless to use with high achievers or the ‘normed’ student, but what you get the chance to do that makes a real difference to the student’s learning is identify how they think. A instead of C doesn’t tell me why the child couldn’t add two digit numbers; listening to that same student verbalise the misconceptions of addition does. Where standardised testing of the written, whole class nature helps me here is identifying the students who would benefit from the interview. Over the last week, I have had some eye opening interviews and discovered some major issues with some students that NAPLAN and On Demand or class worksheets clearly missed. I’ve also found out that some of the students I interviewed because of Standardised Test results, were not low achievers at all. They were using sophisticated mental computation strategies that will support them in future years and should have helped them ‘ace’ the test. Something else was going on at the test site that a written test can’t begin to pick up.

I don’t know how possible it is but it would be nice if at system level someone could investigate the possibility of an alternative to the 50 question multiple choice question test. Is our priority the Collection of Data about WHO is at risk or finding out HOW we can help the at risk student? I don’t know how practical it is at a system level, but 5 questions on key ideas that ask a child to justify their responses is going to tell me more about what is going on in the head of that student than a score of 12/50.

Testing is vitally important but it’s important to find out how to help our students learn, not simply what they do and don’t know on a given Thursday. Identifying learning issues is what I want to see as the purpose of Standardised Testing. That helps teachers. That helps students. Anything else becomes a political football in a debate between two groups of people who are only providing the media 1o second soundbites to keep the real stakeholders out of the conversation.

Having said that, it is certainly not all the system’s fault. Teachers and students have to be accountable in all of this too. What roles, rights and responsibilities do those at the coalface have in this debate? I’ll cover that in Pt 2 ( or maybe even Pt 3 – depends on how much I ramble on for!!) In the meantime, I’d like to hear what you think? What’s your take on Standardised Testing? Which side of the debate do you support? Join the conversation.