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

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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

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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.


Not much

As previously blogged, I’m doing Inquiry-based learning with my Year 11 Information Processes and Technology (IPT) class. Our topic now is Analysis and our focus question is “What price a dream?”.

The class has been working on this for a few lessons now and yesterday I asked if they felt they were learning. One responded with “Not much“. I didn’t take offence because it is literally better than “nothing” (what they used to say until I got them to reflect regularly, i.e. stop long enough to think of what they have learned). Besides, the relevant syllabus content really isn’t difficult; if I were to teach it lecture-style, I would cover in 1 lesson, what has taken us 4, so far.


I got thinking…..

and this is what came of it…..

I started the lesson with this on the board:

Inquiry-based learning

  1. contextual (inquiry)
  2. self-directed
  3. personalised

I told them that when I started, I found them unmotivated and disengaged (also mentioned in my Inquiry-based Learning post). I mentioned that doing Inquiry would perhaps get them engaging more with the content. So the first one was on Cloud Storage and this one now on a life dream for Analysis. Many students nod at this stage realising that indeed they engaged with the syllabus content within the said contexts as well as that their inquiry journeys were largely self-directed and personalised.

I then drew this, explaining as I went:

For all those examples, I named names. I identified students who were showing learning the syllabus, extending their learning, and even abstracting. Seeing individual faces light up as their little gems were acknowledged is priceless!!! (#youmatter) As it turned out, students loved these “shout-outs” (as they call it).

It’s probably best to just “quote” myself here:

If you think you haven’t learned much, it’s because you haven’t pushed yourself enough. My job as a teacher is not to just tell you about things but to give you contexts for learning, opportunities to learn, challenge you and give you feedback. Self-directed learning requires discipline and motivation.

I’m here. Are you asking enough questions? When you ask questions, I answer back – often with a question. But, I meet you where you’re at. Some of you work harder than others, and that’s ok. And those of you who’ve sought my feedback have learned more.

So, are you asking enough questions? Because really, if you’re curious enough, there is no limit to what you can learn.

To be honest, I lost a few along the way but many stayed with me through my mini speech cum reflection cum challenge. One even applauded. Not surprisingly, it was the one who said ‘not much’ yesterday; and today, he got more than he ever expected to learn in an IPT class. In fact, he even asked if I had different approaches for different classes (sounds familiar, yes?) I answered him and added, “Inquiry seems to be working best for me and that means this class“. One of these days, I will post about the “how” I’m doing this with my year 11s.


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.