Feeling like a student

Overwhelmed Flood sign, Upton-upon-Severn
photo by: Bob Embleton [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s often said that good teachers are learners. I believe this to be true. A more recent realisation is the difference between being a student vs. learner.

I’m a student again – started with my Masters in Special Ed. I am learning heaps, for sure but as a student, I’ve re-discovered the appeal of procrastination, the panic of sitting an exam, the need for discipline and rest. My blog tagline is – love to learn – and there is that…especially when I choose what to learn. As a student, I have to learn what has been set out for me to learn and while there are interesting bits, there sure are boring and tedious bits.

Being a student can be overwhelming, a feeling I don’t associate with being a learner.

Faced with so many things to do, it’s like you don’t know what to do anymore. Or worse, “you can’t do anything”, as one of my daughters articulated. As a parent, I’ve seen my daughters overwhelmed by schoolwork; granted, they have healthy extra-curricular commitments (by healthy, I mean they have enough but not too much, not out every day). It’s painful to watch particularly since I don’t recall ever feeling that way as a young student.


and so I wonder…

Are we expecting more from our students today? Do we expect them to learn something new every lesson, in all their lessons every day? Do they have opportunities to enjoy what they have learned before they have to learn something new again?

As a teacher, or parent, would you like to be a student again?  now?

Can’t chuck a u-ey

This is cross-posted in Inquire Within.

Photo credit: wallyir from morguefile.com

I’m really loving inquiry learning. As Edna Sackson has pointed out, I’m on my own inquiry journey. Perhaps because I’m new to it, I find it really is full of surprises – maybe it’ll always be full of surprises by its very nature. This is a positive spin on a journey that is fraught with uncertainties because inquiry is that – keep asking questions though there are no guarantees the line of inquiry will lead to expected destination.

The uncertainties sometimes shout at me like the sign above – “Wrong way, go back“.  My experience with inquiry learning, however, is that once on it, I literally “can’t chuck a u-ey”; the only way is to keep going onward; there is no going back.

This is powerful stuff for me. I am realising that as I learn, I keep moving forward – there is no reverting back. Inquiry as a process is just that – it may branch off to who-knows-where and may seem to lead back to the beginning but the journey itself transforms the traveller.

There is no “wrong way, go back“. There’s still, stop, go, look, listen, turn left, turn right but there is no chuck a u-ey.

Inquiry as a process transforms the learner. In this case, the learner is me, the teacher.

Revisiting the Vitruvian Man

As mentioned in my last post, Walking the walk, I recently completed a 2-week casual teaching block and agonised about walking MY walk. So, here’s another story…this time with Year 8s and on the topic of Rates and Ratios.

I had one lesson (yes ONE, the 3 with the year7s was a luxury in comparison) by the time I got my act together! Enter the Vitruvian Man again (yes, I’ve used him before, on Percentages and with more prep). Remixing my original idea was easier than starting from scratch! By the way, the previous time was with strugglers and this time with high achievers….note the differences in the activity, not just topic-wise but in also tasks…which also show how my teaching approach is evolving towards inquiry and reflective practice.

8mata1_vitruvian – have a squeeze (pdf) and remix if you like…the Vitruvian Man is a maths teacher’s friend!

In a nutshell, the students were meant to investigate the “accuracy” of the Vitruvian Man ratios, extrapolating their own, apply some ratio skills AND reflect on their leaning. That’s not too much to ask in one lesson, was it? And by the way, they were going to use 2 technologies they’ve never used before: Wallwisher (which turned out to be blocked. gah!) and Dropittome.  They had to submit TO ME and they won’t see me again. CRAZY!

So, I completely forgot about this until a week later …. mostly, I didn’t think any of them would submit work to a casual teacher … I mean, really.  No grades attached.

I finally remembered to check my Dropbox and – surprise! I got submissions. I wasn’t even going to blog about this activity but, how could I not?  Here are some excerpts:

“New” ratios

  • A man equals 96 fingers – 1:96
  • A foot equals 16 fingers – 1:16
  • Palm to foot: 4:1
  • Length of outspread arms : 4 cubits


  • Is the theory 100% accurate?
  • Is the growth of your arms in proportion to the growth of your height?
  • Is the length of your foot, equivalent to the length of your forearm?
  • Do these ratios work for everyone?
  • What fraction of your body is one palm? (I love the use of the term fraction. yes!)
  • What is the ratio of the length of a hand to a full arm span?
  • When was the Vitruvian man first drawn/created?


  • Ratios are good because they make it possible to work things out rather than have to measure them every single time.
  • They may not always be 100% correct, as it was proven with my measurements.
  • Although this task was reasonably difficult in the beginning, I found that it was reasonably accurate and correct, as we further investigated Da Vinci’s theory. My results displayed similar findings to the theory; I further developed my rates and ratio skills. Prior to this maths topic, I didn’t completely understand it, however now I find that I can use ratios in many other places to simplify, numerals I am given or to find and approve theory’s such as the Vitruvian theory.
and the icing on the cake…

I really enjoyed this lesson. I liked how we got a chance to put our maths into practice.


So yeah, I’m happy.

That kid saying ‘reasonably difficult’ was being truthful! I nearly abandoned the activity! I’m glad I didn’t. Unlike my strugglers before who were keen to get straight into measuring, this high-achiever class had to be prodded away from their calculations and musings. I’m sure there’s something there but I’m not going into it for this blogpost.

Walking the walk

I just completed a 2-week block at another school, this time cover for mostly Maths classes. Lessons were already planned by the teachers so technically, all I had to do was deliver them (if keen) or leave the kids to do the assigned work and make myself available….this is what casual teachers do, right?

After a week though, I found myself literally sick to the stomach because I knew I could do more. Here I was harping on about to “Make room”,  “Student reflection”, “Inquiry Learning (1)” , IL(2)  and “Playing with different teaching styles and approaches” and then not doing them. Ha!

I could have hidden behind the curtain of ‘I am just a casual teacher, blink and I’m gone’ but deep down, I felt that I had to walk the walk….my walk. The question was whether I could pull this off in a Maths classroom, with students I didn’t even know the names of?


The year 7s were learning about Data and Graphs; identifying, reading, creating, critique-ing…..in that order! I’ve taught this unit before and that’s how we’ve always done it…just like most Maths teachers I know. I only had 6 lessons with year 7s and 3 of those where gone in the first week; so I had 3 lessons left for something different to indulge my ‘walk the walk’ thingy.

Here’s my mini-PBL; it’s not great but does tick the boxes of PBL essential elements (via BIE.org), bar the public audience. There’s a “focus on inquiry, voice and choice and significant content”, as per starting with PBL article (via Edutopia)…relative to the constraints voiced previously.

[click to enlarge]

Students were allowed to work alone, in pairs or in groups of 3. Students had a choice of presentation mode/tools. Students had a choice of graphs.

Investigations were prompted by a couple of Olympic-themed infographics and a video on what is a typical person which aimed to raise questions on samples and populations, in particular.

Musings – positives and negatives

Inquiry was a challenge. The students struggled with the list of questions, i.e. what were good questions to ask. My biggest concern here was that most of them aimed to please me, the teacher, to pick the right questions and answer them. What I really wanted them to do was list the first questions that came to mind, e.g. “What is this graph about?”, “Why did they use this type of graph?”, “Is this a population or representative sample?”, “Is the scale correct?”, etc. It took several instances to assure them that there were no right or wrong questions, as such, and that some questions were impossible to answer, e.g. such as if the sample size and profile were not given.

Timing was tight. Ideally, the students could have been given more guidance to look for more complex and diverse examples. I’m inclined to think that this would have been better at the start of the unit, i.e. I “wasted” the first 3 lessons doing direct instruction and socratic questioning with the whole class.

Presentations helped uncover misconceptions. This was gold! Students were also learning graphs in Science and were talking about the line of best fit and scatter plots. No wonder they were confused when I was teaching them line graphs the week before; some of them thought line graphs were connected scatter plot dots. This misconception came out when a couple of groups presented about line graphs as being bad because joining the dots was “a bad idea”. This misconception would have been practically impossible to uncover using the traditional method of teaching mentioned above because they would have had little opportunity to “make that mistake“.

Big picture approach helped put things in perspective. I’m a fan of big-picture teaching, (re: post on algebraic equations). This mini-PBL got students looking at different graphs all at once, not one-at-a-time as you would in traditional teaching. So when a student asked a fantastic question of how to represent 0.7 in a picture graph using a scale of 10, it allowed opportunities to discuss options such as using a different scale and (the most obvious they didn’t see it) – use a different type of graph….because they can.

This sacrificed Knowledge and Skills for Working Mathematically. This bugs me because I feel I have let the students down because we didn’t tick all the boxes in the syllabus document for Knowledge and Skills such as “using line graphs for continuous data only”. I am biased towards focusing on working mathematically, e.g. “generate questions from information displayed on graphs”, something I believe transcends usability beyond standardised tests and high school years.  Balancing these is a challenge most Maths teachers face. I made my choice and certainly hope that I didn’t do students a disservice.

So, in the end, I did walk the walk….and gained from it.

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.