Making progress

Maybe I miss teaching maths as I feel compelled to use some mathematical terms and concepts in this post about how my (non-Maths) PBLs mentioned in the previous post, are progressing. Oh, and this is inspired by this video on dissociating learning from performance, linked to me by the wonderful Kelli McGraw (@kmcg2375) who constantly pushes my academic thinking, among others.

Anyway, I had to watch that video lots and lots and lots of times. What really hooked me was this notion of variability as aid to learning and transference, even if the performance gain (observable stuff we teachers measure as evidence of learning) is non-existent or slow. See folks, this is why I love Algebra! And in fact, that’s how Algebra should be taught, i.e. change those variables so students can see that the relationships expressed in an equation will yield different values as variables change. This is transference in number terms, literally.

I’m not going to pretend I understand the video completely. I don’t. What does spacing even means? I’m guessing interleaving means making connections. Interleaving vs blocking new things to be learned. whoa!

This is exactly how my PBLs are progressing. Variability. Interleaving vs blocking new things. Conditions are neither constant nor predictable (these terms are from the video, ok?).

Precisely because of how the Year 9 Digital Media Jedi Academy is set up, there is so much variability. I’ve got kids learning to write HTML code, writing ebooks, creating wikis, typography and critically analysing their process…yep, writing their applications to level up. And they’re excited about what they’re doing that invariably (haha) I have to boot them out when bell goes. Comments heard today: “I’ve done so much”, “I’ve learned so much”, “This is exciting”.  They’re collaborating, giving peer feedback and affirmations and best of all, learning how to help themselves.

Their applications to level up are done in Word, submitted to our virtual classroom (a Sharepoint site). I annotate these. Then it hit me that I had no idea of checking if they’ve really read these annotations – we’re talking individualised feedback here that took time and effort! Bianca Hewes (@biancaH80) to the rescue. More specifically, her post on feedback (a must read so go there, will you?) that mentioned the Goals, Medals, Missions framework. I told the students that they had to hunt down the medals and missions in my feedback. This had the added bonus of student feedback on my own annotations. It was clear that I was rather austere on the medals department. haha. I’ll fix that. I wish Sharepoint has notifications like edmodo.

My Year 10 PBL on the school purpose has taken twists and turns I could not have predicted. These kids are getting so engrossed on making sense of the school purpose and want to take the rest of the school with them. I’m actually rather flabbergasted though obviously proud of them taking ownership.  They designed surveys for staff and students and we had amazing discussions on the art of writing surveys and the challenges of collation…we were optimistic we’d get heaps of responses. Now they’re talking about making it a game and what do I know really of Game Design. Well, I’m learning along with them. Like my year 9s, I have to dismiss them a few times before they actually leave the room.

This post is long enough methinks. Anyway, I’m feeling good about the progress. Yeah, I still feel lost but I think I might get used to it and welcome it. That’s a good thing, right?

And just to end on the idea of abstraction: neither Bianca nor Kelli teach maths or computing; yet, see how I’ve abstracted from their work and applied to my context (steal like an artist – go on, check it out….interleaving, see?). This abstraction is Algebra IRL. really.

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7 thoughts on “Making progress

  1. kellimcgraw says:

    Reading this makes me feel like we are connected by ESP at the moment…I should be so lucky to have a class to keep all year to try these longer-term learning projectories! Next week I start my 9-week Curriculum study unit. So I have been so relieved to hear of the kind of successes you are having in Term 1 at a new school. It gives me hope that I really can do a lot in my 9 weeks, if I use them wisely!

    One clarifying question:
    – When you asked Year 9 to hunt down their medals and missions, did they have to decode the connotations of your feedback notes, or had you literally added a symbol to mark these out?

    I ask because in some assessment types e.g. short response or reflection writing I avoid annotating their whole piece (no writing in margins) and just make two ‘happy face’ comments and one comment that starts with something like “TIP:” or a question mark or a ‘sad face’. It’s a way for me to limit the amount of feedback I give (I used to write too much) and ensure the praises outweight the critiques. I think I’ve seen pictures of Bianca using medal/mission icons in a similar way (?)

    OK, gonna start a new box for a new comment entirely!

    • malyn says:

      The year 9s had to decode my annotations. No special symbols apart from the good ol’ question mark to set them off to missions. Where there are no critiques, they could assume they did a good job and therefore earned a medal for that section.
      By the second round though, I was more explicit with my positive and negative comments. I may even have used a happy face a couple of times. 🙂 Most, without prompting, went off to chase up their missions. And I’d really love to blog about that because I’m so very proud of them.
      I sometimes think I’m creating a rod for my back but I am hoping that the feedback will taper by necessity, i.e. the students will need it less. Bear in mind, we’re only in the first few weeks and we’re new to each other. Heck, they’re new to this way of learning!!!

  2. kellimcgraw says:

    I wonder what my discipline can bring to this discourse? I am a fan of mathematical thinking, even though I am not well trained in using or expressing it. I’m a mixed-methods researcher, which means that I value both quantitative and qualitative approaches to knowledge.

    But what can my English teacher-self observe about this theory?

    I went to The Good Site for answers (

    Here is a blurb from the bit on ‘Ontology’ [jargon rating of THAT particular term = 5 stars…]

    “The way that physical objects, like rocks and trees, have being differs from the way that properties of abstract concepts or relations have being, for example the way the concrete, particular, individuals pictured in picture 1 [it was a photo of a cat on a mat] exist differs from the way the concepts illustrated in graph 1 [it was a diagram of the relation ship between the cat and the mat] exist. That difference accounts for the ontological usefulness of the word “abstract”. The word applies to properties and relations to mark the fact that, if they exist, they do not exist in space or time, but that instances of them can exist, potentially in many different places and times.”

    When a student brings me a paragraph that is ‘wrong’, or ‘unconventional’, or when they try to perform that writing task in a test and get it ‘wrong’, or it’s ‘unsatisfactory’…
    Should I take a moment to consider that paragraph as an ABSTRACTION? i.e. a correct paragraph does not ‘exist in space and time’ right now, but that ‘instances of it it might exist’, potentially in that student’s future?

    As an assessor of language and literacy PERFORMANCE, this could be a powerful avenue for establishing what had been learned, and what direction future learning might have to take for that students paragraphs to become “less abstract”. It might help to focus on what the student is getting *right*, rather than what they are getting *wrong*?

    This post is great Malyn, thank you so much for giving us so much to think about 🙂 And so glad to hear your students are responding so positively!

    • malyn says:

      Thumbs up (I think) for mentioning a word I hadn’t heard since my Philosophy days at uni!!! Ontology! ha!

      Sense-making is an act of abstraction…which hopefully leads to synthesis and generalisation and eventually, transference (test of good abstraction/generalisation, methinks). In this context, it is possible to be wrong, not just unsatisfactory. Check my post in another blog, The Road Not Taken to see where my sense-making did go wrong…to begin with. But once I got it right, I managed to transfer what I learned to another context which is really what that post was about.

      I think good feedback is honest and balanced. There is no point to focus just on what the student got right; I daresay the student has more to learn from being aware of what he/she got wrong. But, as psychology goes, we can’t always be negative or the recipient shuts down. This has been true for me as a teacher and especially as a parent – juggling to balance giving both; pays off now because my kids know when I say it’s good, it’s good and when I say it’s bad, then there’s a chance to get better.

      Hmm, maybe I’m an ontologist as it is something I chase, something I wish for my students. Not to take for granted what is obvious but to go find connections, meanings, relevance. And I’ll try different teaching approaches to get there.

      Thanks for your thoughtful and deep comments. You’re really making it so worthwhile for me to blog and reply. xx

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