Risks in Teaching and Learning

I am filling in for another teacher to teach Year 12 Information Processes and Technology (IPT) for a few weeks.  My class was nervous (to say the least) when I said I would teach them in way that perhaps they were never taught before.

It’s not that I was being particularly innovative but I really wanted to leverage my years of (IT) industry experience to make the course as real as possible, within the shortest amount of time, i.e. the short weeks I had with this class.

About IPT

IPT lends itself well to Project-Based Learning (PBL) because the course is meant to be project-based.  That is, the core concepts of Project Management (PM), Information Systems and Databases and Communication Systems are meant to be explored within the contexts of (2 of 4) options Transaction Processing Systems (TPS), Decision Support Systems (DSS), Automated Manufacturing Systems (AMS) and Multimedia Systems (MMS).

The Proposal

I proposed to cover TPS and MMS together as one project. Far from charmed, doubts were palpable. This was eased somewhat when I showed I went through the PM process to create the (PBL) project plan.

In a nutshell, the project aimed to enhance the current Library system (a TPS) to incorporate a multimedia alert system for overdue loans. Students were to play different project team roles and generate products accordingly. Students were to pretend to be IT professionals and interview the school librarians.

Risks, Issues and Solutions

 I didn’t really know what the students already knew. They had supposedly covered all the core content and about to go into the options. We had a lesson of high-level revision (blank-page) strategy. This revealed that the students did not have a big-picture understanding of the course and how everything was connected.

The students didn’t really know me. Trust could not be built in one or two lessons. Showing an interest and coming in with loads of enthusiasm about the course and teaching and learning helped. I shared stories about my IT experience (it is somewhat tragic that the IPT course does read like my CV) and a little about my interests and family. I was always honest.

There is so much content.  My main strategy was to focus on keywords and concepts and connections; quite a good learning (and teaching) strategy. This actually helped build their confidence as guided questioning showed they can remember or work things out. There is still work to be done to get them thinking independently. Doing this approach, they eventually saw that it was possible to combine TPS and MMS.

Real Learning

Our meeting with the librarians was a hit with all parties involved. Students asked interesting questions and librarians happily obliged. Role-playing in a real context allowed students to experience a real interview with users. They saw the library system as a TPS and were pleasantly surprised to find out that it already had MMS elements and that the work they were doing could be useful for the school….alas, we don’t have the tine to really develop/build the solution.

Our meeting was capped with a debrief under the trees (see image), outside the library. We discussed our project, teamwork, professionalism. We discussed what we learned, especially the wrong (and right) assumptions we had. They seemed genuinely surprised that the librarians “owned” their system (in fact, most users of any information systems do).

So much was learned in that “lesson”.

lesson under the trees

Now what?

We’re at a crossroads. We have covered much ground regarding TPS. They can do MMS content on their own, if they have to. We have 5 lessons together left.

I want to keep going with the project but the class asked me to prepare them for the HSC – to consolidate everything, a brain-dump of sorts. They want to know how to unpack and answer questions. They want to know what they yet do not know and understand. They want me to explain. They want me to lecture (fancy that! and I said no). They want me to keep asking questions. They want to know so much.

What they really need is to learn how to learn. For that, I am willing to forego the rest of the PBL. Yep, another risk – chuck out the plan!


Students as teachers

Dandelions are considered weeds and yet they are pretty – from a different perspective.
Students are meant to be learners. I want to try a different perspective where students are teachers.  This is certainly not an original idea (e.g. Steve Wheeler posted: “What the flip?“); however, it is new-ish to me. I’ve read up so much on this that attribution is nigh impossible. I’ve always encouraged classroom as community and learning from each other. I’ve come to believe that “teaching is a good learning strategy”.
What is new-ish I think is considering games-based learning (GBL). Specifically, I mean the big G (read more here). Can there be a big G without the small g? – I wonder.
Now, it’s time to apply!
As an example, here are the elements I am going to incorporate for my Year 11 Information Processes and Technology (IPT) class, within our virtual classroom. In the process, I hope to expose them to less-used features of Sharepoint. The current topic focus in Storage and Retrieval. The context is: “What does the world know about me?” – exploring Social Media.
  • sandpit wiki – play area
  • Resource wiki – student-created
  • forum (Discussion board) – not just QandA, but also somewhere to bounce off ideas. My Year 12 IPT will be invited to contribute mainly questions to help guide year 11s in their learning journey. I’m unsure of whether or not to allow “shallow” feedback such as “good question” or worse, “like”. What do you think?
  • Showcase gallery

At the moment, I am sticking to the forums instead of blogs.

This is not just a matter of integrating technology. Rather, it is providing students with an online platform to ‘teach’ (and learn), augmenting the discussions and interactions in the classroom. No grades for any of these; there is a separate assessment task.
Some people will call this blended learning. Some, like Steve, will call it flipped. Some might call it Inquiry and I may run it as a project-based learning unit. I am also planning a GBL approach with year 9s, more big G stuff and subject to another post.
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.

Multiplication, Multiples and Factors

My daughter is in Year 5 and yes it is NAPLAN year; even if I’ve forgotten this fact, her homework would have reminded me.  She has just finished worksheets on multiples and factors – including concepts of highest common factor, lowest common multiple.  She told me they haven’t been taught in class – which, if it boils down to it, is going to be her word against the teacher’s.  And that’s not really what I’m posting about.  Nor is this post about worksheets and homework.

This post is about multiplication and using the times table.

As a high school teacher, I know that some kids struggle multiples and factors conceptually.  Once applied in fractions and Algebra, the confusion mounts.  A good foundation built up through primary/elementary school years cannot be under-rated.

One of the problems I think is that kids really don’t know, i.e. memorised, their times tables.  Though they conceptually know of multiplication, or even have several models of it, many still have to calculate often by repeated addition through to college/university as @angrymath tells us (and I can believe it).  If you think Cognitive Load Theory makes sense, it follows that knowing one’s times tables reduces the cognitive load when doing maths.  There are also strategies – even ‘tricks’ – to help.  One of the strategies I teach my kids (my daughters and students alike) is what I call the “goalpost multiplication” approach.  Briefly, estimate to the nearest goalpost (x2, x5, x10) and work up or down.  For example, 8×7 = 8×5 + 7 + 7.  Note that even in this strategy, there is a need for conceptual understanding (and review) of certain concepts such as associative property and number sense via estimation.

That was a dense paragraph and there are things I’d like to qualify:

  1. I don’t advocate rote learning at the expense of conceptual understanding
  2. I think Cognitive Load Theory makes sense and I have noted that students who expend much effort (use of working memory) calculating relative to effort on mathematical thinking (e.g., application of calculations) tend to have lower self-concept with regards to their numeracy
  3. Memorising the times table is not necessary but useful, if just to reduce cognitive load and corollary, improve self-concept with regards to maths
  4. If you really cannot bear to memorise the times table, at least have some strategies to get you by.  As a teacher, help your students learn these strategies

Ok. so here’s what I did with my daughter.

I whipped out the Times Table (here’s one you can grab, too)


I used this multiplication grid as a visual aid to explain/highlight the following points:

  1. Any number multiplied by 1 is itself;  one day, she’ll learn that this is called multiplicative identity property
  2. The green line is the square of numbers showing, for example that 3 x 3 = 9 “boxes”
  3. The green line is like a mirror, a line of symmetry, so one side is the reflection of the other showing 3 x 4 = 4 x 3; one day, she’ll learn that this is called the commutative property of multiplication
  4. Rows or columns are multiples of that number (in orange)
  5. The factors of a number are the numbers you multiply to get that number, i.e. the headings in orange
  6. A number that only shows up in row/column 1 (numbers in blue) means it is a prime number, i.e. its factors are only 1 and itself
  7. A number repeating across the table left-to-right, say, means it is a common multiple – a multiple shared by the numbers with it as a multiple  (e.g. 12 in purple is a common multiple of 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 12)<most kids this age understand the concept of common – use this to connect to maths; this highlights literacy as well as help build confidence, i.e. common multiple is not such an alien concept after all>
  8. A number repeating across the table means it has several factors (e.g. 12 in purple shows up in 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12 and these are its list of factors)
  9. A common factor is a factor that is shared by 2 or more numbers. <this is harder to show using the times table but build on concepts of common and factor list>

One could reasonably argue that teaching all points above is risking cognitive overload.  Teaching one-on-one, I could tell that she was keeping pace especially using the times table as visual aid.  My first attempt failed just using the definitions on the worksheets; the times table definitely helped.

I also found out that the tables they have at school where the other kind designed for rote learning: 2 x 2 = 4, 2 x 3 = 6, 2 x 4 = 8, etc.  She was quite pleased with this multiplication grid and using it for finding patterns (pre-Algebra skills) and not just as direct reference.

To be honest, I don’t mind if she forgets all of the “definitions” above if she can work to find them again.  Given the iterative nature of the Maths syllabus, she undoubtedly will have lots of opportunities to re-visit this.

As an aside,  creating a multiplication grid using a spreadsheet with formulas and auto-fill would make a good little tech-integration task and exercise of Algebraic skills; there’s more than 1 algorithm.

Listening diet: EAT

TeachMeets are fantastic events for teaching and learning. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be part of a big one at the ATP (TMWR2012); big enough to be featured in the Sydney Morning Herald: Lesson in Numbers.

The TMWR2012 journey began for me from the moment I volunteered to be part of the organising committee, a cross-sectoral team of dedicated educators who really want to celebrate teaching and learning TeachMeet style (Simon Crook tells a better and more complete story in his post).  It was a joy to be at the Registration desk and say hello to my edu friends, old and new. I am deliberately not mentioning names here as this would end up like the sign-on sheet! 🙂

This post is also to share my 2-minute pecha-kucha entitled, “Are you listening?”  It’s about how challenging it is to listen nowadays and yet when we do, we learn.  I shared a few stories where this was definitely true for me and what listening entailed, ie. the listening diet.

E – empathy – feel the other, their questions, their struggles

A – attention – focus on what they are saying, or not saying

Ttake the other seriously – what they are saying is true for them at that moment, in that context

The stories I shared are all in this blog – 2 minutes is not very long to share 3 stories and plant a seed; I don’t think I even stopped to breathe :).  These are:

  1. Claire’s art to express dyslexia
  2. Pedagogical shifts in teaching Algebra – Introduction via Rihanna, Big-Picture Style
  3. Crowd-sourcing “How do we teach empathy?

These are among my favourite blog posts because these experiences were moments of real learning for me; real examples of me employing the listening diet.

As an aside, I’m really glad I’m doing the 365+1 photo project this year as my Flickr stream provided (CC-licensed) photos for my presentation.

I also decided to join SlideShare and embed my presentation here, such as it is.

Spelling Tips

A few months ago, I told the story of Tania, a girl I met as a parent volunteer for the Literacy program at my daughter’s high school.  For a maths teacher, I place a seemingly unusual high importance on literacy and know that for some, numeracy problems stem from literacy issues.

Today I met James (not his real name), a boy in year 7.  I’ll see him once a week for just under an hour and hopefully help improve his literacy.  The set program involves going through spelling words, a bit of drill on mistakes and then on to reading (aloud) and comprehension.

James obviously struggled, particularly with the words ‘again’ and ‘another’.  He had a few goes and finally got ‘another’ right.  I gave him the correct spelling for ‘again’ which he eventually verbalised as ‘a – gain’ with the long a in gain, as if to make a mental note of how it should be written.  James struggled to string words into sentences; his perseverance was truly awesome.  This was when we got on to ‘another piece of cake’ and he stumbled on ‘piece’.  I suggested ‘piece of pie’ and his face lit up and he said, “oh, that’s a good way of remembering it.”  Little did he realise that he thought up ‘a-gain’ all by himself!

Like Tania, James is lacking but keen to learn literacy strategies and skills.  So, I thought I’d compile a list of spelling tips (Google doc), at least, and share it with him and perhaps the other kids in the program.

I’m not a literacy specialist so I’m hoping my PLN can help either by leaving a tip as a comment below or adding on to the Google doc of spelling tips.  Links to resources would be good, too, though I really have to follow the set program as a volunteer.

Tips for teaching literacy improvement are welcome too, of course!

One could argue, I suppose, that technology can help with auto-correct thereby minimising the importance of learning to spell correctly.  I am not in a position to argue either way though biased towards correct spelling.  Anyway, all I want to do is to support the program and help James. If you can help in any way, it would be much appreciated.