Merry Christmas

As 2012 comes to a close and with Christmas cheer in the air, I’d like to wish one and all a very Merry Christmas! Not everyone would see this post (or my front door) but I thought I’d write this anyway.

Increasingly commercialised, I need to remind myself that Christmas is so much more than shopping or even exchanging gifts…fun as that can be. It is a time to share with family and friends, celebrate traditions, and also a chance to look back on the year about to close (a good one for me) and forward to the year about to start (a promising one for me).  Ironically, it’s a stressful time for many, lonely even.  So this is a reminder for me as well to chill out and enjoy the time I do have with family and friends.

I  have no new year’s resolutions; haven’t had any for years!  Perhaps I’m never resolute enough early in the year.  Anyway, change, if desired enough, can happen at any time.

Merry Christmas! Here’s to a happy 2013, full of pleasant surprises, peace and goodwill.

…one can wish….

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Exams?

Early this week I found out from my  English father-in-law of a call to revamp assessments in schools, towards more exams as kids were not prepared for academic rigour in university-level.  My first thought then was that the pendulum was swinging back to tests as assessments.

I didn’t make any more of it until this  article from The Guardian showed up a few days later,

The article was written to elicit response (clickbait as @lasic cleverly puts it) – the choice of photo included.  Aghast would sum it up for me.  Daniel Willingham, who inspired Gove, later tweeted a reasonable reaction, i.e. wait for the speech to be published and then perhaps write a blog post about points of accord and discord. It’s kind of what I’m attempting here though highly unlikely to be in the same calibre, nor perspective, as Willingham’s.

Anyway, the speech did become available and elicited more response – adeptly by Greg Thompson (aka @effectsofNAPLAN) as evident in his tweets which I’ve Storify’ed here. This time for me, “aghast” did not come into mind and also I was struck by the difference in my perception – or interpretation – of the speech compared to Greg.

I think that’s a big whole problem here – how things are interpreted can vary from the original intent, if in fact that can be discerned given the limits of language.   So here’s my opinion, fwiw, and that’s all it is….ok? Opinion….based on my experience, observations and yes, interpretations.

What a prologue! onwards…

Is there another way to look at all this?

Rote Learning / Memorisation

I’m not very good at memorising; in an English assessment in high school,  I challenged myself in high school to talk about Improving Memory.  I kid you not, I forgot the first few lines of the introduction and improvised! Ha! Fortunately, I got into the groove as my teacher looked up from a hardcopy, smiled (laughing, I’m sure) and encouraged me to go on.  To this day I regard highly a speaker who memorised his/her speech as more engaging than one reading it; I don’t think I’ll ever make an engaging speaker.

As a parent and a maths teacher, I challenged the need for rote learning multiplication tables and ‘facts’. However, I observed that students (and my 2 daughters) who struggled remembering their ‘times tables’ generally thought themselves ‘bad at maths’ even though they showed competence in other strands such as geometry and spatial reasoning.  I noticed that the problem was not in understanding the concept – they understood what multiplication meant; teach it even – but rather, remembering ‘facts’ quick enough, perceptions of which varied from person to person – i.e. what’s quick enough for some could still be perceived as too slow by others – which then affected self-efficacy, motivation and performance.  Cognitive Load Theory helped me understand why this could be happening.  Basically, students expend so much effort in their working memory doing calculations as against recalling ‘facts’ from their long-term memory.  So they were working hard, in fact, except  not necessarily on the crux of the maths problem they were trying to solve or understanding a new concept….then they lag behind and the consequences mount. And this self-efficacy persists beyond school making it the norm/acceptable to be ‘bad at maths’.

A few years ago, I was moved to blog about Conrad Wolfram’s idea of Maths not = Calculating.  Shift the focus from calculating as computers can do the grunt-work.  Simple idea but much harder to implement, especially since there are still non-calculator tests to deal with (my maths faculty had common assessments) and, to be honest, I really didn’t know how to take the idea into practice, a change for good.

There is also a matter of fluency. If one is to do mathematical reasoning, it helps to know the language, i.e. terminology. This applies in other subjects as well with each subject having its own jargon (partially why I think literacy is important in every subject), some with overlaps and worse, a different meaning (obtuse, anyone?).  Having attempted to learn a few languages, I know that vocabulary just needs to be memorised. I can understand why Gove referenced Willingham.

Daniel Willingham again makes the point powerfully in his work when he points out that, “research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyze and think critically –  require extensive factual knowledge”.

My view is…memorisation is useful as part of the learning process and as a skill in itself.  Think of how we expect this from professionals and tradespeople.  As with most skills, deliberate practice is important. Gove interpreted Willingham as that the ‘thought and effort required to build memory,  can be developed by preparing for tests and exams, which The Guardian article took for as rote learning.  I’m not sure this is what Willingham or Gove meant but I know from experience, as a teacher and as a student, that exams nudge (need for) memorisation along.

Exams

Exams, it would seem can have several meanings and therefore, subject to conflicting interpretations.  Greg has interpreted Gove’s exams to mean standardised, high-stakes exams (one of the tweets here) and on this built his lucid and succinct argument (I’m blogging because I can’t compress my thoughts into 140 character chunks).

I’m more inclined to interpret Gove’s exams to be more broad than that because he said,

and why the success of any technical or vocational assessment depends on satisfying the requirements to practice trade or profession.

This to me means that he may contemplate having different exams (more on this later), just as there are different types for career pathways, say, or having written and practical tests. Lawyers take different tests to medical doctors. As an aside and because I’d love to share this story….my grandfather, Attorney Leonardo Amores, is one of the top 10 Philippine Bar Topnotchers of all time. He had photographic memory (not so much now) and incredible analysis skills.  He said he never lost a case and takes pride in declining an invitation to work for President Marcos (yes, the President Marcos – also a bar topnotcher) – hearsay perhaps yet I’m proud to accept because I love him and none of that really matters; he was disappointed that his favourite granddaughter, me, did not go into Law.  He gave me his blessings to go into Computer Science and was very polite, thankfully, when I said I was going into teaching (not highly regarded in the Philippines) because love conquers all.

Gove would do well to cite my grandfather as an example for his assertions of what exams can do.  Gove justified exams for the potential they can bring and reality, as Greg pointed out, is nowhere near those assertions.  Stories like that of my grandfather’s are mere anecdotes then….just don’t tell my lolo (Tagalog for grandfather).  Actually, my sisters and I are anecdotes as well.  We all gained academic scholarships, doing well on requisite tough exams. These scholarships were government-funded with opt-in exams administered nationally and quota adjusted regionally. Not saying it’s perfect but it did aim to provide equal opportunity.

Another story. My mum got up to Grade 6 in piano. My dad could not even read notes and yet could seemingly play any musical instrument.  He had not taken any music exams but he was very good and he definitely enjoyed music….very much. Music was very much a part of my childhood memories. Exams give you certification (and possibly motivation) but it does not imply enjoyment.  Anyway, here is another type of exam which I don’t know anybody ever questions.

As a student, I hated open-books exams the most which really did away with the need for memorisation (so much for rote-learning to prepare for exams!). Or maybe it’s just because I only had them for Physics.  I was also very shy (truly) and oral exams were nerve-wracking.  As it happened, my last exam for my undergrad was an oral exam on Philosophy of Religion. I got surprisingly emotional and cried as I began; my professor gave me a box of tissues and waited for me to get myself together….a very human encounter during an exam! Who’d have thought it possible, eh?  I got a B+.

No NAPLAN or HSC for me as a student. Universities, even courses within universities, had their own entrance requirements. I had to write an essay as part of one uni application and sat an exam for another. I think this approach helped unis select students that would fit in with their culture. There was, however, a national exam which was more like an overlong IQ test.  Standardised. Unis used this as one of their requirements, e.g. uni I went to only accepted students upwards of 98%. It was one of the unis preferred by employees and following this line, one can see why Greg argues against exams as providing equal opportunities….reeks a bit of Animal Farm, I know.

Gove’s speech also reminded me of what a learning support teacher once said to me, “I wish teachers would have more assessments that assess students rather than their parents.”  This goes more than the modular assessments Gove spoke about but also touches on issues of equality and opportunity.  Some students can afford to get more help and they do.  Exams cannot do away with it.  Those who can afford it can get tutors, for example. Aside,  I thank @veritasium for helping me see that tutors are not merely there to exploit standardised tests but that indeed for some, it is the only chance to learn at all.

I wonder if corresponding professions question the need for exams as part of the certification process. I wonder how external exams could look. I wonder how teachers would react to such a policy, i.e. changes in their practice. I wonder how parents would react. Schools? Students? Universities? Employers?

What then?

As a teacher, I struggle with writing exams because a good one is really hard to write. Those things that Gove said exams give? Yeah well, they’re I’mpossible if the exams are not well-written.  My post-grad certainly had nothing on writing exams. Fortunately, I have no trouble consulting (read: look like a real n00b); I seek to learn from teachers with more experience. I see Gove’s point on making it external.

I am hopeful that this is true:

we will be consulting soon on what a future – more intelligent – accountability system would look like. And I would welcome as many views as possible as to how that might develop.

It would be silly to create policies from mere anecdotes/stories. However, I’d be sad too if policies are informed by research alone, statistics devoid of personalities – with every majority (average), there is a minority (outliers); with every generalisation there are exceptions.  Also, I hope policy-makers will help teachers make this work.  There are tons of good ideas out there, much less bridges into practicalities (interpretations of the ideas).  Getting it right is important because even with good intentions, sometimes we break them (kids).

Like Gove, I believe education can serve different purposes. Education has served me well and I wish the same for my kids and every student I come across with, whatever their paths are. For now, I am keeping an open mind that Gove’s assertions have potential to come good, as is my experience. 

Epilogue

I’m still wondering how I got sucked into this time vortex thinking about something that does not even affect me directly. Not yet anyway.  To be sure, there is joy in reminiscing and engaging in a joint discourse with esteemed friends (here’s looking at ya: @effectsofNAPLAN and @lasic). So while this is what I think now, it may change yet again subject to further discussions.

This as an opinion piece. I am not qualified to critique Gove.  There is a reason I didn’t go into Law (reasons, in fact). Yet, my experience ever groweth…and hopefully, so will wisdom.

Important Update (after @lasic’s comment)

Tomaz, like my English and Philosophy teacher mentioned above, has shown kindness in egging me on, even on the face of my ignorance and ineptitude.

Tomaz reminded me of the paper linked through by Greg re: Ball’s policy as effects (PDF here).  Immediately, two things became clear. One, I gained a greater appreciation for Greg’s Twitter handle – @effectsofNAPLAN. Two, I became aware of my open-mindedness as a (unintentional) guise for ignorance and narrow-mindedness, i.e. the exact opposite of what I thought I was doing.

Basically, my argument above was limited to policy as text and policy as discourse, as per Ball’s framework. What’s glaringly missing is policy as effect because the stories above are of winners – not losers…and there are losers, a lot closer to home even. While my grandfather, sisters and I were winners, my brother can be deemed a loser. He struggled with issues of self-esteem (not being as good as his sisters) and it took him years to see his own strengths. In fact, far from being a loser, he was one of few electronic engineering undergraduates hand-picked by a Japanese company.  He worked in Japan for 10 years, became fluent in Japanese and its culture; he has since moved to the US, working for another Japanese company. The point is, he was a ‘loser’ in the game of exams and the consequent effects of such a game; he was lucky the effects were not permanent.

Thus, my decision to get sucked into this time vortex is justified.  I am affected directly, after all, because of NAPLAN and the HSC and I am a mother as well as a teacher. It is important to be aware as well as spread awareness – this could go some distance to help diminish negative effects….I’m sure Tomaz and Greg are happy to further my education along these lines. 🙂

I also continue to stand by the hope that consultations will help inform policy and its implementation/interpretation. This may mean that there’ll be different types of exams, perhaps having the choice to opt-in/out, or better appreciation of its potential and limits.  I could hope for it to go away but somehow I don’t think exams are going away, not in my lifetime anyway, so hopefully we can find a way to make it work with far less losers, if any at all.

I live and learn.

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Imagine: multi-modal learning

Imagine

I love the word, the idea, the song (melody, lyrics, riffs).

We received a (much-wanted) piano – a gift from a stranger (quick digression: husband asked at a local garage sale if they had a piano. The answer was no but that their brother had one to give away but it was in Bega – a good 6-hour drive away! Husband goes off on a road trip with 2 mates and now it’s home…a piano with stories…gotta love that).   Not a day goes by without it being played by my daughters and recently, me. Yes, I’ve decided to re-learn.

If you’ve been following my blog before, you’d recall that I have tried to do this before and, in fact, used the experience as an inspiration to introduce Algebra. That was a few years ago and the interest waned. But now, we’ve got a REAL piano. with a story.  So re-learn, I must.

I chose to learn “Imagine”. I got the free music sheet from here. I had a go and then hit YouTube (as you do) and found this tutorial. This guy made it looked easy and talked about chords. So there I was, tinkering away and said aloud, “I wish I could play chords on the piano” et voila! my fairy godmother appeared! Actually, it was my 15 year old daughter.  She learned the skill from her Music elective and she showed me how. And guess what, there are patterns (again). So now, my ‘version’ is a hybrid of the sheet music, the video tutorial and the face-to-face tuition I got from my daughter. THIS is multi-modal learning!

There’s much here that can be adapted to classroom learning and I will list a few. Please feel free to contribute any more you can glean out of this.

  1. Motivation drives learning. Have purpose.
  2. Learning through (work)sheets is possible. It is a point-of-reference.
  3. Learning through videos is possible.
  4. Direct instruction can be a real boost.
  5. Immediate and specific feedback is invaluable.
  6. Articulating (identifying) difficulties can become learning opportunities.
  7. Learn from anyone; kids can teach.
  8. Identifying patterns can be a catalyst for learning.  Abstraction is necessary for transference (and I’m really excited about this transference bit – building my repertoire and dreaming of improvisations – haha)
  9. Practice. There is a difference between knowing and mastery: I now know how to play Imagine but mastery is still a dream.
  10. Learning is relationship-building.

Imagine a classroom where these are at play.

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Sometimes we break them

Orchid buds 2 by Mal Booth, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Mal Booth 

I was gardening yesterday and I was delighted to see that my “neglected” orchid had buds, very much like the photo above. It was not really neglected in the sense that these plants like to be outside, in dappled light…and obviously it was happy enough to flower!

That was the good news. The bad news was that I broke the bud cluster (or whatever they’re called). Yes, I broke it and my heart broke…a little. See, I wanted to bring it inside the house in the flower pot it vacated after flowering years (yes, years) ago. So, I thought I’d tidy it up a little and pull out some of the weeds and get rid of some snails. When I was done, I looked up and wondered where the flower buds were; they were on the ground….broken off.  Aargh (did you hear me then?).

Now, I know this story is RICH and full of potential metaphors but the first thing that came to my mind was – kids; and I thought that as a parent and a teacher. We want them to flourish in optimum conditions and when they  flower, we want to celebrate it and to be honest, glow with pride (yes – show them off…perfectly human, I reckon).

But not all kids survive such process, sometimes we break them. This is not necessarily due to the extremes of neglect or over-attention (can one love too much?). In fact, I’m more inclined to think it’s when kids disconnect (break off, so-to-speak) for which there could be many, many reasons.

My train of thought (yes, this was all still part of me grieving the broken buds yesterday) led me to think about my choice to only have 2 kids and my preference for smaller class sizes. To connect with kids, we need to get to know them and that takes time and effort. Hats off to parents with more kids and teachers who can handle many students. Me? I sort of know my limits.

So yes, it worries me when a politician says class sizes are not important and harps on too much about teacher quality. Doing my Grad Dip Ed, The Importance of Teacher Quality (2002, Rowe) really hit home. What really struck me then was that there were more differences in schooling experiences and outcomes between classes (not between schools, genders, SES, etc) …. which then got credited to teacher quality.

Little did I know that as a teacher, the experiences of my students would differ even during the same school year, i.e. my “quality” is not that consistent.

What gives?

There are so many variables when people are concerned. Dynamics are important. Yes, relationships….which, as mentioned above, need time and effort. And time and effort, we must expend (as teachers and parents) because ….we might break them (kids), even with good intentions.

So is it really teacher quality that makes the biggest difference or is it a combination of factors? Frankly, I’m a little confused now.

Many have said that our education system is broken. Or is it our society that’s broken because we’re all a little confused (not for lack of information but the glut of conflicting information, more like). Anyway, I have no solution. Is it to make classes smaller or give performance pay or give more strategic Professional Development or mentoring or selecting “high achievers”? Hey, maybe it’s none of the above or all of the above and more besides.

What we must remember is this….sometimes we break them. Sometimes, we notice straight away and can ameliorate but sometimes, it is too late….and that is tragic.

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My students made me cry

Term 2 2012 was spent as a relief teacher, teaching Computing Studies to mostly boys in years 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12. When I started that journey, I had a dream of Students as Teachers, a post I ended with:

Students will learn. This time, I’ll let them teach…each other…and quite possibly, me.
With changing perspectives, (my) teaching is evolving and I find that exciting. For the record, I’m also a little scared it’ll fail, i.e. that I can’t facilitate my students to teach. I’ll try anyway.

I have blogged a fair bit about this 9-week journey and how I was such a GBL n00b, took risks with teaching and learning, “flirted” with Inquiry-based Learning via Clouds and Dreams, and generally just explore different teaching approaches (or styles).

I was always mindful about covering the required content BUT  I knew I wanted MY students to get more out of their time with me. I wanted them to learn so much more than the bullet points on a syllabus document. The thing is, they do anyway, from most teachers, if not all. It’s just that we’re often not explicit about it nor give students time to reflect on their learning as well encourage questions and conversations (see related post, Not Much).

While I played with different teaching approaches, there were common themes: self-directed, specific and regular one-on-one feedback (face-to-face, written, online via Edmodo), do what you ask the students to do, and a driving mantra of “get to know the kids”.

But with my year 11s, I did one thing differently – and that’s to regularly give them time to reflect, in writing or online, on their learning: what they learned, mastered and struggled with. I think that this has helped them learn to learn. Here’s a snapshot of some responses to my end-of-term survey:

Student preferred activity

[Click to enlarge]

This was a class who initially answered the question “what have you learned?” with “Nothing” to “not much”. Now, I got: “we used an example to help explain tasks focused on in class .. very good tactic” and “Allows us to think about our future, as well as learn about Information Processes.”

Of the activities mentioned, you can read about “Can we trust the cloud?” and “What price a dream?“. The IPG challenge veered away from Inquiry-based learning as a competition designed to cover the rest of the syllabus content really quickly. Each group was assigned an Information Process to research on. Every lesson, the topics were swapped and each group then had to find mistakes, add more information and report plagiarism (it’s amazing how quickly they realised how easy it is to spot!). At the end, each topic was presented to the class. The prize was a free lunch from me – which turned out to be a class party where they all willingly chipped in ….it coincided with the end of term and my time with them.

It is interesting that there is a good spread of what activity each student liked the most. Some obviously preferred to work in groups. A few enjoyed competition. Many liked the personal and individual work. Regardless, the ability to articulate thoughts about their learning had improved for most students. And, none of these activities go towards their marks/grades.

I found that moving because that was a realisation of my dream; they were learning and teaching each other…me, too. As if that was not enough, read through some of the general comments.

Student comments

[click to enlarge]

And that’s how students made me cry! *at home*

I used to be embarrassed to say as a teacher, “I’m not passionate about teaching but I am passionate about learning”. Not anymore. I was designing learning experiences – very rarely did I “teach” the class collectively. Edna Sackson articulates this so well in this post: From Teaching to Learning.

I am accountable to cover syllabus content and I can’t let that go. What I have let go of is “control” because I can’t control learning. In letting go, I have allowed myself to explore other ways for the content to be learned….and maybe I was just lucky but this year 11 class engaged with the content more than I thought they would, and certainly some more than others! and that’s okay.

In a nutshell, here are what worked and I’d do again:

  • diversified approach
    • I’m really loving inquiry-based learning
  • give time to reflect on learning
    • talk about it, promote it
  • get to know the kids
    • design activities to accelerate the process. with my year 11s, for example: About Me wiki, one-on-one time in class, prompt/honest feedback on work, Dream document. As one student said before saying goodbye: “you found something good in all of us” – and why not? This is what makes people tick.

 

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