2015 in review

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Once again, the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,400 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 23 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Assessment viewed sideways

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My last post asserted that the world looks at assessment the wrong way. ‘Sideways’ so to speak. I did this with no real evidence to back up my view so I guess it’s incumbent upon me to at least give some sort of proof.

To do this I submit the Australian NAPLAN testing program as exhibit A, and the Victorian Certificate of Education’s GAT as exhibit B. As neither would be widely known outside of Australia I’ll attempt to set the scene a little along the way.

Exhibit A: NAPLAN

In it’s own words, The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is an annual assessment for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. [It] tests the sorts of skills that are essential for every child to progress through school and life, such as reading, writing, spelling and numeracy.”

However, these are not the words some people involved in the process would use. NAPLAN is a contentious pariah in the opinion of some. For example, it is the cause of much angst in Schools whose published results appear unflattering, and significant anxiety for students and parents who worry about failing to perform well.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 12.52.37 pmHere’s the thing. NAPLAN is an exercise in meta-data collection. The value is in establishing literacy and numeracy standards of present day students in the Australian educational landscape and locating where there is a regional, institutional, or systemic need for attention or overhaul. The Tasmanian education system, for example, was flagged in the last 12 months as worthy of scrutiny based on the data raised by NAPLAN.

So it’s useful. In fact, I’d go so far as to say NAPLAN is absolutely essential to education policy makers in this country. However, because its big picture stuff, it’s implications to schools and families is limited and easily misconstrued. Every student receives their results and the performance of every school’s collective student body is published on the “my schools” website. What that means in effect is that everyone who cannot gloat over unambiguously strong results is left feeling defensive and threatened by appearing mediocre.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 12.02.49 pmI regularly hear accounts of schools that take time out of their curriculum schedule to prepare their students for these literacy tests. I also hear accounts of schools tapping individual families on the shoulder and suggesting it would be a good idea if their little angel were away sick for the testing week. I have anecdotal evidence of students who have developed anxiety over school as a result of these tests and I also know that when my school (an open enrolment school) asks for parents of prospective students to supply NAPLAN data, the request is treated with suspicion and fear that the data will be used as an unofficial form of selection criteria.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to set the record straight on NAPLAN. It has no direct bearing on the achievements of any Australian student in the curriculum they are learning in. Scrutinizing it for meaning is like looking at climate records to predict whether or not it will rain tomorrow. Not exactly a futile activity but equally not a guarantee of precise information. It is nothing more than a diagnostic tool. Being ‘good’ at it is nice. Being ‘bad’ at it is fascinating and worth investigation rather than concealment. I may as well howl at the moon though. People cannot help layering results with status and stigma. Interestingly, the same cannot be said of…

Exhibit B: GAT

The high school finishing certificate of the masses here in Victoria, Australia is the Victorian Certificate of Education or VCE and an integral piece of this process is the General Achievement Test aka the GAT.

A quick look on the official website explains the GAT is ‘a test of general knowledge and skills in written communication, mathematics, science and technology, and humanities, the arts and social sciences’ – an exercise in literacy and critical thinking basically.

And once again, I’m convinced the attitude to this assessment is lopsided. My circumstantial experience is that students sit this test in the middle of the year (also the coldest part of the year here) and it is an exercise in begrudging compliance. It’s a three-hour test under exam conditions with two writing tasks and a set of multiple choice questions and … blah blah blah.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 12.53.42 pmStudents really just don’t want to know about it and schools want to get it over and done with quickly. Everyone is at the end of a long term and the first semester has just wrapped up and they’re feeling flat. Schools for their part make some effort to prep their students for the test but my sense is that this is something most staff don’t fully appreciate, and parents are completely uninformed about the thing.

But the GAT matters! Unlike NAPLAN which has no direct effect on curricular assessment, a student’s GAT result comes into play when there is a discrepancy between the school assessed results and the end of year exam. In such situations the system favours the level of achievement that the GAT most compliments. Therefore, should a student achieve well throughout the year but then bomb out in the exams, a GAT performed to their best ability is there to protect all that hard work. It’s credit in the bank!

The status and usefulness of this assessment seems obscured to me. Not that I want anyone getting anxious about it you understand, I just think there’s a lot of students who overlook it’s direct value to them.

Sideways Perspectives Corrected

Both testing regimes sit largely outside the daily grind of student curriculum and both claim to be indicators of general aptitude. For this reason I often hear people say that ‘you can’t study for these things’ which is another unhelpful perspective in my opinion. Students can always practice sample questions and writing genres because in doing so they develop familiarity with the nature of questions, the nuances of the wording, and assurance in how to complete tasks.

It may be that suggestions the tests can’t be prepared for is a way of managing anxiety but if that’s true than we’re feeding ignorance by missing an opportunity to look at assessment properly.

The question that people really need answered is not ‘what is it?’ but ‘what is it for?’ More specifically, what’s the assessment designed to measure? In the case of NAPLAN, frankly, there’s not much more in it for individuals than bragging rights. It needs to be taken seriously and completed properly but its ramifications are for the big picture. The GAT on the other hand is only undertaken for the benefit of establishing individual student’s standards. A strong performance in the GAT safeguards against poor outcomes at the end of the year.

If we could all resist the urge to be seduced by some odd sense of test prestige and focus more on what assessment is designed to do I think we’d all see things much more clearly.

Assess meant differently

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The first draft of this post was written yesterday morning while my class was sitting a test. How ironic it is that the only time I’ve had all term to write is when my students are sitting assessment – particularly as the topic I want to explore is assessment.

Just at the moment, the issue of assessment and what constitutes good assessment seems ubiquitous to me. It dominates my twitter feed among the educationalists I follow, it’s the root cause of a considerable amount of activity and angst in my school, and most importantly, I attended a day long session with Dylan Wiliam not long ago where he (quite brilliantly) demystified his concept of ‘formative assessment’.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this post. I’ve been aware of Wiliam’s work for a fewScreen Shot 2015-06-02 at 7.39.32 pm years now and I have come to trust his judgement on what does and doesn’t constitute valid research in education. That he comes from a long apprenticeship in the classroom as a teacher in the first place carries great weight with me. What really impresses me though, is that he clearly scrutinizes the research findings he looks at. If you are like me, you regularly come across correspondents who use or publicize research that usually supports their (presumably preconceived) views. In such situations I wonder if they ever read past the abstract and a few graphs before claiming here is proof of whatever it is they’ve been saying for years. By contrast, I have confidence that when DW refers to some new data driven finding he has first pulled the research apart and established it’s validity.

Basically, I appreciate that he does what I can’t. I haven’t the time or the skill to collect the entire body of research on anything in education and, in truth, I’m not going to do so here. When I write, all I can do is piece together what I think I’ve learned from my professional experience and match it against the opinions of experts I trust (such as Wiliam).

So it’s nice to see that when I finally meet the man, his finer points on Formative Assessment are compatible with what I wanted to write anyway.

I think, for the sake of clarity, I’ll hold off on my review of Formative Assessment seminar until my next post. For now, I’ll give you my unashamed spin on the topic so that it’s out of the way.

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 7.11.44 pmI’ve come to look on the concept of assessment as an extraordinarily pervasive and subtle riddle. Everyone (and I mean everyone) thinks they know what assessment is and how it is applied in schools because everyone has been subjected to it in their own schooling. And yet, while experience is the greatest teacher, I suspect our collective experience of assessment has led us all to the wrong perception of it.

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It’s like a lesser known work by Pablo Picasso on loan from one gallery to another and accidently hung on the wall sideways. Before the error is realised people come to see it, they engage with, analyse and appreciate it. It ‘works’ for the first time audience and (while it isn’t in fact ‘working’ the way originally intended) the question soon becomes ‘should the problem be fixed or keep it as is since people seem to like it?’

I think we all look at assessment sideways. It’s complexity, it’s significance, it’s greatness. Sideways.

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 7.12.15 pmI’ve come to believe that, at it’s best, assessment gives clarity and structure to the effectiveness of a students’ efforts to learn. Beyond that assessment should inform us on what, if anything, should happen next. It should propel learning onward and foster creativity. Above all else, it should be affirming for everyone who is putting in an effort (ahh! there’s that word again).

That’s far from the working reality however, there’s too much riding on the outcome of assessment for too many stakeholders for my preferred definition to be accurate. Assessment is synonymous with standardisation, productivity, efficiency, and above all else – status.

I should point out that I don’t really mind any of this. I’m critical only up to a point since assessment as it is manifest in schools works for the vast majority of situations. It’s just that it’s conventional application all too frequently leads to conformity and/or anxiety which is generally unhelpful.

That’ll do it for the moment. While I’m not sure what Dylan Wiliam would think of my take on the topic I’m quite sure of what I think of his. That’s coming up next time.

IKEA? Seriously?

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Lessons learnt from IKEAYes, IKEA. Seriously. The inspiration for this post came from reading some academic research on the psychology of ‘effort’, a podcast on hacking, and the Swedish Furniture Company.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m increasingly fascinated by ‘effort’. It’s a fundamental yet overlooked principle to teaching and learning in my opinion. Recently, I went looking for research in the field and found a decent resource (here) with reference to a paper entitled …

“The IKEA Effect”

You can read it for yourself here but – long story short – researchers found that people don’t just take pride in the things they make or do or construct (such as an IKEA storage box), they literally value it beyond an objective price. As they state in the paper “whenever someone takes an active role in the production of a positive outcome [they are] disposed toward valuing that outcome more positively”. Variations on the tests were conducted with origami and LEGO and pretty much confirmed the basic premise (although interestingly the effect appears to rely on completion of activity).

In educational terms I think what they’re saying equates to more empowerment = more effort. For me, this reaffirmed some long held beliefs borne from experience. Firstly, the disengaged students I teach will improve quickly and significantly if I can get them to value their work. Secondly, when a student’s body of work is displayed or at least kept safe, that student is more likely to commit to the next thing we tackle. Finally (conversely if you like) why should a student value their work and be incentivised to put in more effort if I signal to them that it’s just another piece of work to process and move on from?

The effect was a pleasant piece of research to stumble across and it also reminded me that I had come across another IKEA related phenomenon, with implications for teaching and learning.

“IKEA Hacking”

There is a must listen to Podcast called 99% Invisible that explores the way humans interact with designed things and I find it a joy. Not long ago they posted an episode on ‘IKEA Hacking’ and the ambiguous relationship that has developed between hackers and the company. You can listen to it here for the full story (and you should listen – it’s fantastic) but the gist is that there are some IKEA consumers who actively modify IKEA products to create new unintended items. For example they’ll buy a couple of storage units and make a double bed base out of them. They put effort into making something and they love it and want to show it off online (here!) but the company has a hard time accepting this.

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An example of IKEA Hacking. The Hacker seems quite pleased to point out the original piece cost less than $60.

I think this illustrates something quite important about effort and empowerment. There’s a wonderful synergy between effort and creativity. Regardless of the activity in question the feeling that I accomplished something is delightful. What’s more there is both empirical and anecdotal data that confirms our delight spurs us on to other more challenging activity. We become invested, engaged, motivated and determined to progress onward and upward to even greater affect.

Often the combination leads to unanimous acclaim but sometimes … it doesn’t. From the perspective of a parent or teacher or school we want to be proud of our young and see them apply themselves. We want to see effort reap reward. The IKEA Hack story is a cautionary tale. The powers that be (schools, teachers, and parents) should probably be prepared for effort, energy, and creativity to take students into unconventional or subversive territory from time to time. We can’t expect it will always be on our terms. It was their effort after all.

Smile Smile Smile

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So the new school year has begun here in Melbourne and I have to say, on reflection, that I have enjoyed the first week very much indeed. I attribute this to a few factors:

1.The weather has been kind. Usually February throws some oppressively hot spells our way here in Australia and we are as often as not dealing with extreme heat while acclimatising to new timetables, students and courses. This is the first year I can remember where the temperature has been mild enough to ignore fans and Air conditioners and simply open a window if the need arises. It amazes me just how much easier that has made the start for all concerned.

2.A new era has begun for me with my eldest starting High school … at my school. Actually, I suspect it will soon cease to be ‘my school’ as I can see he’s going to make it ‘his’ very quickly. I suppose I’ve put off thinking about this until the day finally came. Now that it has, it’s brought back a surprising number of memories of my own year 7 experience of entering the high school where my Dad taught. In both instances the father has been based in the senior campus so the son has some time to enjoy finally being a student at the school he’s been exploring for most of his childhood while avoiding awkward Dad/Sir moments. He’s loved it so far and I’m not even going to try and hide my enjoyment of seeing him and his group join the College. It’s a wonderful thing.

3.There’s an energizing collegiality amongst the staff I work with. Many are old friends while some are very welcome additions. In fact, amongst the newbies are a few ex-students whom I once taught. Couple this with the lessons I’ve learnt personally over the last few years and I’m very much in a ‘bring it on’ state of mind.

So it has been smiles all round and, interestingly, it was with a smile on my face that I was reminded of the old adage “Don’t smile ‘till Easter”. This was a mantra most subscribed to when I first started in the biz. It’s the slogan of those teachers who fear showing any friendliness or enjoyment in class will be pounced upon by malicious little brats as a sign of weakness and exploited mercilessly.

Utterly ridiculous really and thankfully it seems to have been discarded by everyone I work with. While there hasn’t been anything I’ve heard that has replaced it exactly, there’s a consistency in the advice I’ve heard given to new teachers that sounds something like ‘you be you and trust in the system when the need arises.’

Anyway even if, against all probability, every child in your class is a terror, well there’s nothing quite as unnervinging as an authority figure who stands there quietly with a knowing smile.

😉

Ok folks. 2015’s begun. Let’s roll!

Talk from Chalk 2014 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,800 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 30 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The ‘eff’ word

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Let’s play around with the concept of ‘effort’.

If this isn’t the most important, yet least appreciated concept in education, I’d like you to show me what is. There seems to be this paradox around the idea of effort. We demand it of students but rarely articulate this effectively. We’re good at congratulating those students who demonstrate it. We’re usually quick to investigate, encourage, and maybe even chastise students who don’t demonstrate it. It is obviously highly prized. Yet, we are very poor at identifying and articulating just what efforts a student is making and giving them due credit for this.

Mind you, education systems world-wide are, by contrast, exceptionally good at accurately reflecting a student’s achievement. Achievement is tangible, measurable, empirical. Society can (and increasingly does) chart children’s achievements as they grow up, marking their progress against well established and quantifiable standards. We measure the achievement of students in schools (as I’ve touched on before). We even measure (in a way) how the achievements of students in one nation compare to others. Sadly however, I have to say the lengths we go to in establishing how much effort goes into these achievements is pitiful.

If you’ll excuse the indulgence, I feel the need to fade into a nostalgic anecdote. My primary school report cards from the 1970’s used to show grades I had achieved in each subject area and right next to them with equal billing and status were grades for effort. For its time the system appears to have satisfied all concerned. Teachers gave their judgment and families understood what was implied.

Ah yes, those were the days…they don’t make reports like that any more.

No, indeed they don’t. With some justification too. The modern day report card is an exercise in communicative dazzle camouflage, crafted to maximize feedback while minimizing potential insult.

While I’ve not bothered to track the evolution of report cards over the decades, I’m fairly confident in suggesting the great advancements in the art have come from a desire to be objective. Those old effort marks I received years ago were all unsubstantiated subjective opinions and any model that relies solely on the personal (albeit) professional opinion of a teacher is bound to be contentious.

These days you will occasionally find some reference to effort in some school report models (actually my children attend a primary school that has a five point grading scheme for their effort) but they are still unsubstantiated and appear vague and disconnected from the rest of the information.

For the entirety of my professional career in high schools analysis of students’ efforts have always steered clear of the written public record and largely rested in the domain of spoken feedback. Teachers today will usually only speak about their perception of effort in class to students and parents in vague euphemistic terms. We like to say things like a student is ‘putting in’ or ‘having a go’…or possibly “not”, as the case may be. We allow ourselves to fall into hyperbolic absurdity by hoping they put in 100%.

Seriously folks, the way education systems monitor effort is awfully vague and sometimes unhelpful. If you can point to examples where this isn’t the case, I’d love you to comment.

It’s a shame because I can think of enormous benefits from being able to have meaningful discussions with students and parents if only effort was more legitimately measured. For a start it would be nice to give genuine credit to conscientious, hard working middle achievers, who always seem to miss out on positive affirmation. Secondly, I can see it as a great starting point for discussions with disengaged students. From here we could move more quickly towards looking at the underlying causes for their lack of motivation and hopefully find resolutions.

Mostly though, I just like the idea that we paint a more complete picture of what schools set out to achieve and what society hopes for; young people who take on life with authenticity and integrity.

I think we are manifestly capable of measuring student effort with a high degree of accuracy and, ironically, this shouldn’t be hard. Schools already have most of the information. First, they have the aforementioned achievement history of each student. They also have mountains of background information on each of their students. Add to this the records kept on attendance, extra curricular participation, behavior, punctuality, and even attire. Oh, and then there are the teachers.

Yes! The teachers. Make use of teacher opinion. Qualified, formatively assessed professional opinion.

You’re doing a wonderful job

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Today marks the last day of school for the year. Really. Students finished a few weeks ago. Teachers last week. But the school I work at will officially wrap it up today because it’s the last working day for the school officers.

I’ve written about School Officers before [here] and today I want to add a little bit more to that.

To the school officers of the world may you have a Merry Christmas and a safe and joyous holiday! When you come back in 2015 know that you are doing a wonderful job because, while I don’t know how wonderfully you do it, I am absolutely certain your school would not operate anywhere near as well as it does without you.

Stay wonderful.

Merry Christmas from Aus everyone. Stay safe now.

Merry Christmas from Aus everyone. Stay safe now.

Be a teacher. Please? Please be a teacher.

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It’s funny how one picks up little subplot signals in the zietgeist to the point where the only way to silence them is to act on them. You know – those times when you’ve got a bee in your bonnet and its only way out is to share it whether you were invited to or not. The title of this blog is one such bee and it has been buzzing around in my head for the better part of a year.

It’s first resonant buzzing came to me last year when I was researching one of my newest heroes – Tim Minchin. I came across his graduating speech to the class of 2013 at his alma mater, the University of Western Australia. You can see it here and I thoroughly encourage you to do so because he is a rare talent and an extraordinary thinker. If you couldn’t be bothered though, that’s ok, here’s the ‘buzzy bit’.

Be a teacher.
 Please? Please be a teacher. Teachers are the most admirable and important people in the world. You don’t have to do it forever, but if you’re in doubt about what to do, be an amazing teacher. Just for your twenties. Be a primary school teacher. Especially if you’re a bloke – we need male primary school teachers. Even if you’re not a Teacher, be a teacher. Share your ideas. Don’t take for granted your education. Rejoice in what you learn, and spray it.

Advice well expressed and well worth heeding but, as I personally had already heeded it many years ago, I didn’t know really how I’d further the point so I left that idea alone and the urgency to post the idea waned over the course of the year.

However, It grew again in late October. This time it came from a good friend and respected colleague of mine at our school’s Graduation dinner. His official address was the same as Minchin’s. His message was one of hope that all the graduates of 2014 would become teachers one day because he wished them all the pride, satisfaction, and fulfilment he has experienced working with them and which culminated in this momentous occasion.

Once again though I had nothing more to add except to say that I concur whole-heartedly. Still, the idea grew …

It even occurred to me again over successive movie nights in the Sterlinghurley household. Over two traditional Friday fish and chip feast my kids and I watched the Karate Kid films of the 80s. It was awesome. My boys sat mesmerised and I revelled in the nostalgia. I got a real kick in seeing their appreciation of slightly dated Generation X cinema. I also realised that, of all the heroes of my youth, Mr Miyagi was the only one left that I still have a shot at emulating in some meaningful way.

Okay, so I admit that encouraging teaching at graduation ceremonies is one thing, but seeing the same advice in 80’s cult classics is a little bit of a stretch. But that’s the thing about zeitgeist. It permeates. And besides, what else could the moral of the movies be other than ‘You don’t have to be a Teacher to be a teacher. You don’t even have to teach karate to teach karate! If you’re really good, you can teach karate while teaching how to wax a car and paint a fence.’

So now I come to this week and I’m seeing the concept everywhere.

  • Sunday: my youngest takes part in her first dance recital and I see how much she and her little friends have developed not to mention the pride glowing on the faces of their teacher and assembled parents.
  • Monday: I take next year’s senior classes for their first lessons as part of the school’s orientation program and this lot are an enthusiastic bunch.
  • Tuesday: My eldest’s piano lesson introduces a new (and wonderfully tricky) piano piece which he can’t stop tinkering with.
  • Wednesday: At my other son’s swimming squad session I chat with an ex-student who has been an instructor at the pool since graduating. He tells me he’s just completed his first degree and about to begin a Masters of Teaching.
  • Thursday: I receive an email from a (different to the aforementioned) colleague who, after 40 years in the biz, retires this week. In this message to the staff he states,“Teaching is a privilege and, I believe, the greatest occupation there is.  It has been a pleasure working with you.”
  • Friday (today): Next year’s year 7s have joined us for their orientation day. The Cohort includes my son and his friends. The look on all their faces (and their parents’) was priceless.

So, okay. I get it. The message is around me – everywhere – humming with the resonance of a minor fifth played on a Hammond electric organ and fed through a wall of Marshall amps. Time to share.

Be a Teacher… or a teacher. It brings enrichment and joy to the lives of those around you and to yourself.

Please.

A Day of Reckoning

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This morning the European Space Agency successfully landed a probe on a comet. It was the result of preparation and presumably trial and error over the course of a decade. Even with this effort I read last night the mission leaders felt there was only a 50-50 chance  of success.

Boy can I ever relate to this. 

In about an hour form now my English Language students will sit their final exam. It’s the course that I documented in the post below and in which I completely changed my teaching style this year. Obviously I hope for great results but, to be honest, I know these students and I know the’ll get what they need from all their exams and they’ll get where they want to go. Really, my one real consideration is a sense of dread that I’ll not see much noticable change in the stats when I finally get them. If the good kids do ‘well’ and the plodders do ‘ok’ and the strugglers’ marks are ‘scrappy’ I’ll be just as ticked off as I was 2 years ago. Whatever happens, I have once again enrolled to assess the exam scripts and hope to gain more insight into how this tricky little subject ticks. 

Admittedly it’s not as if I’m trying to land a remote controlled device on an astral body – but it certainly feels like it right now.

Students warmly greeted by these signs this morning.

Students warmly greeted by these signs this morning.

The Best PD Ever!

For years now I’ve been hearing how the best possible professional development for a senior school teacher is involvement in assessing the end of year exams with the State’s education authority. However, year after year, I’ve also heard those colleagues of mine who do it groan about the extra workload it entails. So, while I often thought about it, I had never signed up for the gig. In any case, the end of year is always busy for a Year Level Coordinator so I would tell myself that I didn’t have the time.

But this year was different. This year I was mad.

Basically, the marks my students were awarded last year were below expectations (theirs and mine). True, we could possibly be excused for not fully appreciating the demands of the course as this was the first time we had taught ‘English Language’ (a socio-linguisticy kind of English subject) at year 12. It was also the first year of a new study design and there was uncertainty everywhere around what the end of year exam would look like. But I’m not playing those cards. We thought we had prepared properly. After the exam all the students left saying they were happy with it and not surprised by anything in it. Yet our results were mediocre.

It was intensely irritating.

For the record, all the students I taught last year ended up where they wanted to go and were not disadvantaged by the scores they were awarded. Their disappointment was, therefore, short lived. I, on the other hand, was not prepared to take this injustice lying down. I questioned it at the highest levels I could find which was, predictably, utterly pointless. Next, I attended the public ‘meet the assessors’ night and heard their observations of how the exam was handled by students across the State. That was helpful but nothing really stood out there either.

In the end there was nothing for it. I applied to be an assessor. To hell with the inconvenience. I had to know.

Before I continue I should point out that I am legally obliged to avoid discussing much of this experience on social media. As I’m keen to avoid a Special Ops team descending through my ceiling and confiscating my laptop, I intend to honour this commitment. All I wish to do here is reflect on the experience in general and not the specifics of the exam assessment.

My first reflection is that the people who do this work are impressive. What’s more they’re passionate, and thorough people. They work towards a consensus on what constitutes a mark and if that involves robust discussion at the first meeting so be it. They do not (as is sometimes assumed) rush through papers and while there are some that whine and opine about the quality of the responses they must read, they do so only because they care and are looking for reasons to add marks – not take them away.

My second reflection is that the process is undeniably accurate. Anyone who has corrected essays will know how big a part professional judgement plays in correcting extended written responses. Well, there are processes and controls that ensure every script is looked at properly and by more than one assessor.

My third reflection is that everything I do in this subject now comes with gravitas. I’ve already had one week of working with next year’s class and while there’s nothing remarkably different in my teaching, everything I say is said with a conviction that only comes with being an experienced assessor. Not that I am experienced yet, I need another year or two before I can genuinely claim that. Nevertheless, I know what I’m talking about far better than before and my students seem to be reacting to that.

My final reflection is that we did nothing wrong last year, we just didn’t do it well enough. That’s why the results were mediocre. If a student is going to achieve marks that are better than average they have to earn them and justify that status. This isn’t an IQ test, it’s a meritocracy based on demonstrated levels of expertise.

I always knew that but now I get it.

So, basically, they were right. About everything. The quality of our work last year and the usefulness of the exercise. It is unquestionably the best PD I have ever done. It was inconvenient, the remuneration was measly, it was long and tiring, it challenged and questioned my processes, it forced me to do things properly and held me to a high standard.

It was awesome.

I’d recommend it to anyone.

Beginning The Conversation

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This is a post about new media and old stories.

Once upon time I would wake up most mornings and enter a kitchen where my dad would be reading The Age broadsheet while eating his porridge – my portion still in the pot waiting for me. Fast-forward to the modern day and my own children awake to a world where they do indeed see their dad preparing breakfast (and occasionally that is still porridge) but the paper is absent.

Instead they see me at my phone.

The Age still exists – just – only it’s now in tabloid format and on line and I don’t have the inclination to look through it anyway. These days I wake up, check the headlines on the ABC news app, get the breakfasts ready, and then check the latest education pieces emailed to me from The Conversation.

It’s here where I could make a grand pronouncement about how The Conversation is the future of media and how it will be a pivotal and positive revolution in the age of information. Well, I suppose it might be but to be honest I’d be guessing if I did. Personally, I’m inclined to favour it for a variety of reasons.

  1. It originates from my Alma Mater the University of Melbourne, was the idea of a media consultant who had come from ‘The Age’ and while this shouldn’t mean much it nevertheless appeals to my sense of loyalty.
  2. It takes out the middle-man so to speak and does away with journalists who are beholden to media moguls by tapping into the intellectual capital of professional academics who do in fact know how to write well.
  3. It’s been around now for about 4 years and in that time has expanded to include academics from the UK and now the USA.
  4. It doesn’t pussyfoot around with a false notion of objectivity. It is unashamedly subjective in favour of whatever the research suggests. Rarely will pieces suggest there are two equally valid viewpoints and give both their time in the sun. Pieces are expressions of professional opinion, and evidence based research.
  5. Articles are written like opinion pieces with one significant difference; every author discloses any funding or conflicts of interest that may be relevant to the piece.
  6. They email me the latest pieces on a topics I’ve asked for.

Which brings me to the reason for this particular post at this particular time. It turns out that The Conversation’s Education category has just turned 1 year old so they checked to see what pieces had attracted the most attention over that time. Here’s the top five.

  1. ‘Gentle parenting’ explainer: no rewards, no punishments, no misbehaving kids
  2. How to tell if your child has a speech or language impairment
  3. Private schooling has little long-term pay-off
  4. State school kids do better at uni
  5. Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help

What struck me most about the list was it’s clear link with one specific group of stakeholders in the world of education. Parents. Specifically the consumer kind that want or crave guidance in how best to support the education of their children. What I really liked about each article was the way it took a clear and unambiguous stand on topics that have been kicked around for far too long in mainstream media. I can’t speak for the world at large but I can confirm that Australia is a first world nation with an increasing obsession with how best to prepare it’s young for the rigours of the future. The parents of Australia know it’s important, they know education is the key, but they aren’t sure they know how to go about it. Should we have our child tested? What does testing show? Is a state education a disadvantage? et cetera, et cetera, et cetera

For years, in some cases decades, current affairs programs and other media of that ilk have raised these topics and gone nowhere with them. Even though I could take issue with bits and pieces of these articles and others published, it warms my heart to see decisive, evidence based opinion being expressed directly to the people in a way that might just put old issues beyond doubt.

I’ll leave it there for now except to say that if issues around education matter to you, I recommend you tap into The Conversation. For what it’s worth I’m convinced my dad would have approved of the work it presents (although he’d probably have preferred it came in broad sheet format with the milk every morning) and you’ll just have to trust me that there is no greater recommendation that can be given.

Catchy by line too.

Catchy byline too.

It doesn’t work if you don’t pedal

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The wonderful thing about a metaphor is that it allows one to describe bewilderingly complex concepts by discussing something else that has similar qualities and is much less bizarre. Take learning for example. The whole issue of what it is to learn. What’s involved in it? How we do it ourselves, and more importantly, how we encourage it in our young? I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about this over the years and have come to the following conclusion.

The only effective way to cover any of that is to discuss something else: cycling. Bear with me, I think this’ll work.

You see, bike riding, like learning, is usually, although not always, fun. It takes our effort and magnifies it, making us more effective. Powerful, if you like. It rewards our efforts by allowing us to move faster over difficult terrain which we could otherwise never cross. It takes us to our destination but often the journey and the way we took it becomes more important. It’s not an ability that comes naturally but it is something virtually everyone should be able to do with a little help at the start. We all need instruction in how to do it one way or another but once it’s mastered it’s a glorious freedom. When we’re little, we ride for the sake of riding. Where to, and for how long, doesn’t matter very much. We ride with our friends. It’s an awesome part of growing up.

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Of course, when we actually do grow up riding bikes becomes serious. Learning also. It becomes a form of competition. Riders now ride in seeming isolation from each other. Their loved ones (who aren’t riding in the comp themselves) suddenly hold expectations of the riders and invest in ways to assure themselves of success. They purchase the ‘right’ equipment. They advocate the best practice technique and strategy. None of that comes cheaply. They measure performance and place enormous significance on incremental improvement or decline. ‘Support crews’ urge on from the sidelines, coaches and team leaders conspire, cajole, inspire, insist and plead for more productivity.

What can easily be forgotten is a simple fact; the bike will not move one inch if the rider in the saddle does not move the pedals. No matter how much everyone else wishes to help move the rider onward, it’s ultimately up to the body on the bike.

I doubt any of us have ever seen a child who didn’t find riding a bike exhilarating and I’d suggest that similarly, there’s never been a child who didn’t find the world a curious place and didn’t enjoy learning and discovery. By the same token there are plenty of children who have grown to young adulthood out there and have changed their opinion. Now they find cycling a chore, too much bother, and question its relevance in their life while older and wiser heads know different. The same can be said for learning.

Here’s where I drop the metaphor and write a little more plainly. The true secret to individual students’ academic success is the engagement and efforts they generate themselves. The involvement of parents, teachers and schools in general is significant but still minor by comparison. If we really want to affect improvement in those that we feel are underperforming, perhaps the first step is to recognise that they are the ones who need to metaphorically ride the bike and for some reason they’re finding the ride a tiresome uphill experience. If we then work out with them why they’re struggling, give them guidance, and help them find a sense of purpose in carrying on, then I think we can safely say everyone is doing their job.

Oh, and one more thing, they say you never forget how to ride a bike … surely learning is the same.

Now that’s Aussie

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What’s it mean to be ‘Aussie’?

Surely the hardest things in life to describe are the things that are so commonplace we take them as self-evident. This was the dilemma my senior language students face as they attempt to come to grips with writing about Australian society and how it uses language.

The reality of being ‘Aussie’ is a lot harder to describe than they had expected. The stereotype was easy enough. Our class discussion of what is ‘Aussie’ soon painted a picture of bikini clad ‘sheilas’ and big strong ‘blokes’ in singlets and thongs, standing around a barbeque near the beach while kangaroos bound past to the soundtrack of a didgeridoo. Lots of green and gold, lots of beer, lots of sport being watched or played or gambled on.

It was a predictable illustration as most of the features here are reinforced stereotypes that appear all around them. Especially in a year where Australian athletes participated in the World Cup, the Winter Olympics, and the Commonwealth games (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of that – its a British Empire thing) and their associated sponsors advertise to a patriotic audience. But once cliché was presented on the board in class, it could be seen for what it was; simplistic, jingoistic, inaccurate, comical, utterly ridiculous.

For the record, there is a national identity. The personality of people who are born and raised in Australia (even if their parents weren’t) are shaped by living here. What’s more this can be clearly identified in the way Australian society uses the English language.

It’s just a little more subtle and complex than greeting everyone you meet with “G-day!” and stretching every vowel sound out to painful extremes.

To illustrate the point to my students (and their parents) I modelled a way of deconstructing Australian use of language in the blog I’m writing for the subject. I have received a lot of positive feedback about this so I’ve decided to share some of that post here. It never ceases to amaze and humble me just how international my readership is so, perhaps, this may just be useful for any of you who find the folk from ‘the land down under’ to be speaking a language you understand but still not making any sense.

A five second Case Study

The following event took place as I was walking to class. It occurred in the open Plaza area and I’m pretty sure only three people heard it – two students and myself. One student (who’s identity will remain secret by using the pseudonym “Alex”) was just about to enter the Physics classroom while another student (“Bruce”) was exiting building 6 on his way to another class. From my vantage point it was clear that Bruce had noticed Alex about to disappear into class and decided to call out to him. It was also clear that they were friends and that whatever was about to be said was a good-natured, rapport building exercise that affirmed their friendship. Without yelling or putting on a silly voice, Bruce called out in his standard Australian accent,

Bruce: “Hey Alex …”

At the sound of his name Alex turned,

Alex: … ? …

Bruce continued,

Bruce: “…you’re ugly.”

At this point Alex smiled, Bruce chuckled, and both went about their business.

That’s Aussie. Now prove it!

I am completely confident that you can picture the event based on what I’ve described. I’m equally certain that you can see the discourse as distinctively Australian. More specifically, it’s distinctive of teenage male Australians. The trick now is how to use this in your writing.

Your class discussion on Australian Identity will no doubt have identified the list below as qualities Australian’s value and exhibit;

  • egalitarianism
  • humour
  • friendliness
  • mateship
  • relaxed and ‘down to earth’ personality
  • playfulness
  • subversiveness
  • informality

All of the above are evident in the four word, five second discourse I’ve identified. Bruce was completely confident that Alex would understand that he was implying friendship and their broad smiles to each other was proof to the only other person nearby (myself) that this was indeed the case.

It was not an attempt to exercise power over or bully another person. It was not an attempt to intimidate. It was, in fact, an expression of the admiration and friendship Bruce feels for Alex. It was a rapport building exercise. It was an idiomatic expression that was not to be taken literally but figuratively. It was ironic. It was hyperbolic. Semantically, the word “ugly” was the antithesis of what was actually meant.

It was ‘Aussie’. Possibly not uniquely Aussie – I’m prepared to believe that the same event could occur with the exact same context in other parts of the English speaking world – but distinctly Aussie in that Australians will quickly recognise the scenario as typical of friendly, teenage male banter amongst friends…

The original post goes on to recommend how the students might write about this. It’s fairly academic as I’m encouraging them to incorporate the metalanguage I italicised. None of that’s really necessary here so I’ll stop. Before I wrap this up though I should mention one final thing.

There is absolutely nothing ‘Aussie’ about that discourse if either or both of the two speakers is female!

Hope you found this enlightening.

Catch ya on the flip side.

😉

 

This much I know about…what Year 7 pupils’ parents really worry about (and why your keepy-uppy skills really matter!)

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I’m a big fan of John’s work. He seems a good man, definitely a great observer of education, and I’ll credit him with introducing me to the term “keepy uppy”.

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I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about what Year 7 pupils’ parents really worry about (and why your keepy-uppy skills really matter!).

I am convinced that the best pastoral care for students from socio-economically deprived backgrounds is a good set of examination results. I thought I’d state that clearly at the outset just in case I get attacked for being blobby and soft and someone seriously suggests that I should be sacked for writing what follows.

You can only be as happy as your unhappiest child. This ubiquitous mantra may have become a cliché, but if you do have children you will know it possesses more than a grain of truth. We worry about our children’s happiness endlessly.

When my sons went to secondary school above everything else I just wanted them to…

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A whole new ball game

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Here’s another post from my classroom blog. I’ve entered all of my year 12 students into an essay writing competition which is a little unusual considering the all consuming nature of this final year but, as this post explains, this may turn out to be one of the best things they do this year in preparing for their future career in education. 

It will come as a surprise to no one that student life in a tertiary institution is very different to that of secondary school. However, what does come as a shock to many is just how different the demands of writing are.
VCE expects written responses that
• are hand written
• are completed within a timeframe (50-60 minutes usually)
• deal directly with the wording of concise and carefully worded topics
• aim to be between 600 – 1,200 words in length
• have very little opportunity for editing
• encourage students to articulate their ideas and opinions

Yet the extended written responses students write in Tertiary institutions are almost the complete opposite in their construction.
• They are typed (although this is rarely compulsory)
• They have long, open-ended essay topics
• They have due dates set many weeks away from when they are first issued
• They are expected to be thousands of words long
• They are not really interested in what the student thinks (I’ll come back to this)

It’s a whole new ball game with a whole new set of rules and strategies to learn in order to perform well. In many respects it is a sad irony that the tremendous effort high school students make in writing well are redundant when they reach tertiary courses. Suddenly their writing skill set must be altered dramatically.

But then again, such is life.

So let us not dwell on difficulties here. Let us, instead, look at how to write well and how it helps you when you get to a tertiary course.

Who cares what you think?
This is putting the point a little bluntly but the fact is that essays at a tertiary level are frequently vehicles for showing how widely a student has read rather than their opinions. This is why the word counts are so high, due dates are so long and the topics are so broad.

A good technique is to read the articles of respected commentators in a field and write a short analysis of what aspects of this are relevant to your topic. They may be anywhere from 50 to 200 words in length. You will quickly see how some writers are similar and others different and you will probably see a pattern emerge of how to thread them all together into a coherent discussion. The individual mini analyses will need to be edited to flow together but the majority of the work should be already done.

Conclusions?
With the body of your essay largely completed as an analysis of other people’s opinion, the last few paragraphs at the end of this style of writing is left open for you to draw your own conclusions. At this point don’t be surprised if the contention that you find you develop is different from the one you had expected to write at the start. In fact, the hope is that you have found your reading has informed and formulated your opinion. Also, don’t feel the need to develop a simplistic black or white, yes or no answer. If the topic was complex to begin with your analysis should probably reflect that.

The end is the beginning!
Paradoxically, it is often only when the majority of your essay is complete that you can construct its introduction. Now that you know the direction you’re piece will head in, you can have greater confidence in how to start it. Sometimes, there is a need to discuss the implications of defining certain words or concept within your topic here. On other occasions you may want to give a little bit of background to these concepts. If, through your reading and research, you found that opinions on the topic fall into two or more camps, here’s where you map that out briefly. You can also finish the intro with a reference to your conclusions.

These essays are true constructions in a way that your exam essay writing isn’t. With all this done, you will have a decent first draft which will almost certainly need some polishing up before submission. The good news though, is that the hardest part of the job is complete and subsequent drafts will work on fluency of expression, and checking for appropriate referencing.

We Don’t Dare Fail

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I was looking through old posts and decided to re-post this one. Partly because I like the message and partly because I have some minor updates.

  1. I’m convinced the best way to learn sucessfully is through one’s failures
  2. I’m equally convinced schools are institutions that struggle to facilitate this
  3. My little girl now runs into daycare squealing with delight every time we go  

A three part post about a magazine, a meeting, and a musician’s musician.

I’m going to give you three fragments of my week. Each one triggered a memory of the other. Together they illustrate the point that, when people love something, they do it authentically, in their own time, and do not sweat the small stuff – like the finished product.

Part 1: The Magazine

I dropped my little girl off at daycare this morning. I didn’t enjoy it. Twice a week for the last 18 months she’s been going and still, every so often, she will get distressed at my departure. Today was one such day and it felt like someone was ripping a band-aid off my soul. I know for a fact that she loves it there as she never wants me to take her away in the afternoon…but I digress. On my way out, to take my mind off the guilt of abandonment, I picked up a free copy of Melbourne’s Child: the best guide for parents.

I don’t know if the people who write in this mag are journalists, but their stuff is usually well written, and it’s always about education from a parental perspective, so I scan through it when I can. At lunchtime I had a chance to read it and found a piece about creativity.

The writer explained she has a wonderfully artistic child who does all sorts of stuff at home but hates her art classes at school. Rightly or otherwise, the teacher is cast as a villain in the piece. She is apparently, loud, controlling, and doesn’t like mess. The parent/writer offers to construct a carefully worded letter to the school but this is horrifying to the child, so instead, she takes her kids for a walk around the park. There they collect leaves and associated foliage, bring it home and make a 2 meter long collage. They then clean up.

It was one of those ‘I think there’s something in that for all of us’ pieces. So, the self appointed “best guide for parents in Melbourne” advocates active involvement in your child’s development. Involvement that is complimentary, if not actually in place of, their kids’ formal education. I’m not sure I completely endorse the portrayal of the school, but it’s her story. Anyway, it leads me to think of my Monday night meeting. 

Part 2: The Meeting

The staff have been working with an outside provider this year. She is a psychologist who specializes in students and educational issues. She’s pretty good in my estimation but I think the observations she leads us to are less than a revelation. For example, the conclusion of her thesis, after 2 hours of presentation, was that teaching children to be forgiving, kind, and generally loving will lead to them being resilient people in the future. Fancy that!

I don’t really want to criticize her though. A fascinating part of the session was the discussion regarding anxiety in students. I tend to agree with her premise that this is a serious problem and its one on the rise. It’s definitely a topic for a future post. What made it really fascinating though was how the staff reacted, quite spontaneously, to one aspect of the discussion on anxiety.

Having presented evidence that performance anxiety in junior and middle school students has a lot to do with the expectations they face in school, she asserted that perhaps there was a need to let children fail occasionally so that they could see it’s not the end of the world.

Well that, as they say, went down like the proverbial lead balloon. Actually, it sounded a bit like a deflating balloon too, as there were a lot of staff that made that almost whistle noise when you take a sharp intake of breath. Some murmmers played harmony with the whistles and created a general mood that warned ‘don’t go there girlfriend’. She moved on regardless and I suspect she didn’t understand what was driving the reaction.

What was driving it was the perception of staff, collectively, who are firmly of the view they are not given the license to allow students to fail. Failure looks bad. The school can’t accept the risk that failure may be misinterpreted. Neither can the education system that regulates the school for that matter.

I thought of all this when I considered the nasty art teacher in the magazine article, m/who is always yelling and worried about mess. The story suggested she had made a poor career choice. In my opinion (putting these two ideas together) she’s most likely preoccupied with having something tangible that she can show her superiors and the outside world more broadly. Something that the children can be given and achieve while operating in a restrictive timetable that gives only a short time frame before they then have to clean the room for the next class. Originality and creativity sacrificed so a teacher can demonstrate efficient presentation of curriculum.

From here I was reminded of a facebook post I saw over the weekend… 

Part 3: The Muso’s Muso

Dave Grohl (drummer, singer, guitarist, all around rock god) recently posted the following (censored) thoughts on his facebook page.

…Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old f***ing drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll f***ing start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some sh***y old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass sh**, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a f***ing computer or the internet or The Voice or American Idol.”

Of course, Grohl is absolutely right. He wanted to be a musician and so he cobbled together equipment, played/practiced his heart out, improved, and the rest largely took care of itself. He even did it twice! Completely re-inventing himself from the Nirvana drummer into the Foo Fighter’s frontman. He didn’t need a school to structure a framework within which he could have his progression charted or passion assessed. His bio compliments the mum and kids who went out and collected leaves for a collage. His failures (and I’m sure there were many) were life lessons and not school ones. There’s no way Nirvana was coming out of a school music program and talent quest.

Mind you, the issue of anxiety still lingers. Kurt Cobane started the same way and was less successful at resilience than his good friend Dave. 

Epilogue: Dare to Suck

So what should we make of this? Anything you like really, but for me, the theme of the post is personal creativity. Schools have come in for some criticism here but so be it. I don’t really want to make apologies for schools. I would ask though, that outsiders consider what pressure insiders are under to ‘perform’ before questioning their expertise or competency.

Oh, and one more thing. When I picked up my little girl, she had three paintings to bring home and told me all about the awesome day she’d had jumping in puddles.

Trust, clear and accountable

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So here we are, approaching the mid year point of 2014. The northern hemisphere enjoys its summer break, the planet for the most part keeps a close eye on the world game in Brazil, and in households all over Melbourne mums and dads secretly consider a dilemma.

How do we urge our teenage child on to study for midyear exams and avoid being dismissed as nagging stressheads?

I’ve written before about the right of parents to be utterly subjective about their children. It is essential that they act as the ultimate advocate for any student.

But that doesn’t always mean families see eye to eye as regards to work ethic. From time to time – mostly exam time – emails arrive from concerned parents. They have tremendous love for the emerging adult that is their child but they also have their fears. They sense assessment deadlines exams looming and yet they don’t see much change in the academic intensity level.

As I say, from time to time emails emerge requesting advice on this.

Here’s my advice.

My suggestion to parents would be to balance trust with clarity and accountability.

Essentially, I think it is important for the long term that students be entrusted with the responsibility of managing their study and academic success. That said, it is equally important that they be aware that they won’t be allowed to fool anyone, including themselves, if effort is substandard.

I think it’s very important parents sit down with students if they have concerns about preparation for assessment. A constructive conversation where parents inquire how well their child understands what is expected of them by their courses need not be a cross examination but it should be detailed.

Students should know the rules of the assessment game. They should know their assessment timetable and should therefore be able to chart a study plan that caters for this. As the assessment period begins they should be able to map this out to parents. Similarly, students should be able to explain to their parents what the exam format in each of their subjects will give marks to. If their teachers are not in the habit of discussing this in class in the lead up, they should actively investigate this as soon as possible.

In other words they should be able to explain to their folks what tasks are, how to get the marks that are needed to achieve to a high level, and what skills need practice to make that happen.

Parents should be listening carefully to how their child, the student, describes these things. If they’re vague, generalized, or evasive, they should be challenged to be more specific. The metalanguage (jargon) of each subject is fundamental to success. Often success in exams boils down to how well a student can ‘talk the talk’. Parents themselves don’t need to know what every metalinguistic term means – they’ll almost certainly know instinctively if their child is authoritative or not.

Children should be able to articulate their goals and those goals should be to aiming high in all subjects. A plan of attack should never factor in mediocrity. By the same token goals should not be based on what the parents want, but based on the individual’s capabilities. In some cases an A+ average is not unreasonable. Not everyone is capable of straight ‘A’s though and parents need to appreciate this. Everyone is capable of aiming high and setting a standard that is both attainable and tough.

Now if a child can articulate what gets the marks in their subjects and how they plan to go about getting ready for each individual due date, then that should be respected. They should know that they will be trusted to see their plan through.

If they can’t articulate an understanding and a plan of attack, then they may need a little more time to work it out but they are at risk of losing the privilege of self-determination. I think it is entirely appropriate for parents to take an active role in the process if students chose not to. Yes, it’s their life but parents gave it to them in the first place and micromanagement/pestering/nagging/badgering is the price they may pay if they don’t take charge themselves.

I repeat though, if they earn trust then that trust must be respected. Children should know that once they can articulate an understanding and a plan, they will be trusted to see it through – even if they’re watching TV the night before an exam. 

That’s what should happen before. Here’s what should happen after.

It’s just as important that parents sit down with their kids in the aftermath and debrief.

Discuss their level of confidence with their performance by all means but, once again, aim for details beyond ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’.

  • Were they surprised by questions?
  • Were they confused by some tasks?
  • Did their preparation match the content they needed to address?
  • Did they execute their plan?

Once again this should not be a cross-examination. It absolutely must be constructive. If they make their targets it’s worth discussing how hard or easy that was. There is a double victory here. One is obviously the results that are rewards for effort. The other is the pride that comes in having shown faith.

However, should a student feel they’ve fallen short of their goals parents would do well to avoid demonizing failure. Any student who expresses some disappointment, concerns, worries, or even announces outright disaster is a student who is prepared to confide inconvenient truths with their parents and that cannot be a bad thing. In fact, it becomes the stuff from which real lessons are learned. If their goals were genuinely high in the first place then its completely understandable should a student falls short here or there. The real value was in learning what needs to happen next time to meet the challenge.

No one would dispute the advice that families should love each other unconditionally. What that looks like in the context of education is sometimes unclear though. I suggest students genuinely prepare, articulate, plan and execute while parents consult, challenge, trust and support.

All of which is completely in keeping with loving each other unconditionally.

Read Think Write Repeat

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I’ve started a new blog for my students and their parents. The idea is any evergreen concepts that are valuable (and used to be delivered by me in class like sermons from a pulpit) will be posted there for easy access 24/7. Here’s the latest one.

What are the habits of a successful, proactive, independent learner?

To start with they work out what it is they are supposed to be doing. What the subject expects of them. What’s the course want them to do and how will that be assessed? The end game. Is there a study design? Is there a list of suggested readings? Is there a list of words or metalanguage or jargon, that they need to get to know and use?

They think about these things and investigate. They are bright but not super computers. They don’t memorize everything before the course really gets going. But they do familiarise themselves with the job at hand and they make sure that the ideas, insights, observations, and questions they have at this early stage are taken out of their head and put on a page. In other words, they take notes.

They read. They think. They write.

As the course progresses things fall into place and come into perspective. Class work and time with the teacher and other students helps them learn and master the content. They do the work expected – not to just get the work done and stay out of trouble – but to help them make sense of what’s important in their subject. They read more than just the required information. They play around with the ideas in their head at times other than those moments when the classroom comes to order. They don’t live and breathe the subject (there’s more to life than that) but they do think about it and establish what they understand, what they don’t yet understand. They get all this out of their head and onto a page – they take notes. They ask their teachers for clarification and note down the explanations. It all sounds worryingly complex and hard to manage but there is a pattern to it all.

They read. They think. They write.

Periodically, they need to prepare for assessment. They should have been given the opportunity to see examples of work that has been done well (and they darn well ask for it if they haven’t). They look at these examples. Not to plagiarise – but to pick up tips. Turns of phrase, ways of weaving evidence into their ideas, styles of expression, metalanguage in action, structure. Then they try it out themselves.

Read. Think. Write.

Once they’ve tried it out themselves they give it a short time to settle. They come back to their work a little later and check it to see that it says what they thought it says. They consider for themselves whether it is doing the job required (remember, they worked out what gets marks early on) and then they get feedback from the teacher. Sometimes their peers. Maybe even family and friends. And then they take fragments and sections of their work that they think could be better and rewrite them.

All the while they are basically following a pattern of read, think, write, repeat.

Successful students aren’t geniuses. They’re not bookworms either. They don’t try to do it all on their own but they don’t sit around waiting for someone to tell them to “pick up a pen and write this down”. They get busy in learning the content, knowing the rules of the game, getting it all out of their head and on a page, reviewing the quality of their work and improving it bit by bit.

They read. They think. They write. They repeat the process.

They read. They think. They write. They repeat.

Read. Think. Write. Repeat.

Read. Think. Write …

Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!

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In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcom Gladwell makes an uncomfortably convincing argument that society favours the young who develop fast at the expense of everyone else. He used Ice Hockey junior development squads to illustrate this point and by extension suggests that, if we just treated everyone with more equality for longer, the talent pool would present itself as a great deal larger when it really matters.

I‘ve been thinking about this all week and I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that my own experience illustrates this point all too well.

When I was teaching in Japan my approach to working with students needed to be fundamentally different to that which I used with students here in Australia. I know this is a breathtakingly obvious generalisation but it was especially true when running class discussion. This is a feature of my teaching that has always been strong. I have long prided myself on an ability to run an interesting and insightful classroom forum or debate or Q&A. Not that this is hard to do here anyway. Generally speaking the students I encounter in suburban Melbourne are not backward in coming forward.

Not so in Japan however. I quickly learned that any question thrown out to the classroom for someone to catch and run with was guaranteed to drop to the floor unanswered with a metaphorical ‘thud’. I knew the questions were understood and I knew that the majority of students could answer them. But they didn’t. It was not that they didn’t like me, it wasn’t that they didn’t care, it wasn’t even the case that they didn’t want to respond. It was that they were bound to a code that demanded silence…

I am a part of a community and my place is no more important than anyone else here. My actions will reflect on the community as well as me. Where my actions contribute to the status of the community I am in the right. Where my actions single me out as above or better than the community I am in the wrong.

In Japan I worked with Kindergarten, Elementary and Junior High school students. I have no idea how, but some sort of switch was flicked when kids put on a junior high uniform and this code kicked in. It meant that my questions were not going to be answered because the first person to put up their hand would not be thought of as an engaged learner, they would be thought of as a smarty pants know all who considers themselves better than the rest. A truly appalling concept to those children.

In the weeks it took to work this out I persisted in waiting for some poor student to take the initiative. Inevitably they wouldn’t so then I’d pick on the same small number of kids whose only crime was to be seated in the areas of the room I tended to look at a lot. When I finally worked out what was going on I wanted to go in and apologise for my insensitivity … only that would’ve made it worse.

Still, once I realised what was going on, the solution turned out to be staring me in the face quite literally. Across the top of the back wall of every classroom in every school that I ever visited (and I got around) was a class list. It was always in kanji (which is why I didn’t catch on immediately) and every name had a number. Obviously this list wasn’t alphabetised but there was a pattern to it and all the students were seated in a way that illustrated it.

Bingo…literally! The solution was bingo. A variation of it anyway.

I made a set of cards from 1 to 40 so that whenever I needed to call on a student I would take the card from the top of the deck and the student with that number in the room would be called on to attempt an answer.

Suddenly being called on to speak publically was a truly random occurrence that the students found quite exciting. Now answering my questions wasn’t an act of self-aggrandisement, it was one’s duty. In fact, to answer poorly would be letting down the team. What’s more, since everyone knew their turn was inevitably coming around during the lesson, everyone needed to be alert and engaged at least until their turn had come. It worked brilliantly.

But, having devised this … I then stopped using it.

Upon returning to Melbourne the hands of enough students shot up again of their own volition. My rapid fire Socratic style went back to full speed and I returned to lazy habits. I relied on the few to answer the bulk of my leading questions. Occasionally I’d call on a quiet student but it felt like I was picking on them and so generally those students who wanted to fly under the radar were, at least on this one level of my tutelage, allowed to do so.

I still used a variation on the theme from time to time but it was infrequent. Whenever I needed to generate an order for class presentations for example I’d pull out names from two cups. I called them ‘The cups of fear and fate’. After a while I replaced this with ‘the grumpy god mug’ (a questionable Christmas present from one of my brothers).

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For years now, I’ve been calling on a select few who prefer or enjoy answering questions in class. Meanwhile there’s been a significant fraction of every room sitting quietly in varying degrees of passive disengagement. These quiet ones aren’t lazy, but they aren’t being properly challenged either. That’s where I should come in. That’s my job.

Time to put a stop to that. From now on it’s back to bingo and no one gets missed.

The Ford, the Flip, and the Future of Teaching

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I’m always cautious when examples of best practice from the business sector are applied to education. The two sectors have much that is comparable and yet much that isn’t. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this post I’m going to dabble in it. Years ago I took a social studies class on an excursion to a (sadly now closed) Ford Motor Company museum. It was here that I first learned that the famed model T assembly line was a little more complex than I’d always assumed. I haven’t been able to confirm all of the following detail so I apologise if some of it turns out apocryphal but I’m going to run with it. After all, we’re all good friends here and no harm can come of it.

To begin.

The story goes that Henry Ford was searching for a way of lowering the cost to the consumer of his cars. The Model T was already competitively priced but he wanted to drop it still further so that it was within the budget of middle America and not just upper middle America. To achieve this he reasoned that he needed to make the manufacturing process more efficient but not sacrifice quality of labour or materials. To achieve this he needed to stop production. Ford ceased operation, sacked his workforce (with a promise they’d be offered their jobs back when he was back in business) and hit the drawing board.

Pause here.

Here’s where I explain why I’m relating all this to you. Presently, there is an enormous popularity in education to ‘flip’ the classroom. Some of the rhetoric around the flipping phenomenon reminds me very much of the story of Henry Ford and his company’s stunningly successful development of the assembly line. For most schools things are generally running well and keeping up with the expected standards. The same could have been said for the model T. Yet it is undeniable that we can all do things better – in fact most of my recent posts have been about how I personally feel the need for self-improvement. To this point, the idea of going back to the drawing board and redesigning the model of teaching delivery a la Henry Ford seems pretty good.

To continue,

Ford identified how many process stations for a car, being dragged along on a conveyor belt, needed to pass through in the process of being constructed. He had borrowed the idea from the meat industry that used a ‘disassembly line’ for processing carcasses. In Ford’s version skilled workers waited at each station and, proficient at that stage of assembly, would complete their tasks within a prescribed time. In this way the time it took for a single Model T to be constructed was slashed from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes.

That’s why customers had to buy them in black – just one paint on the market at the time dried fast enough to keep up with production and it only came in black.

The efficiencies he made in speeding up production meant he could better orchestrate three 8-hour work shifts and so work at the purpose built factory in Michigan went around the clock 24 hours a day (5 days a week). Production reached dizzying heights, the cost to the consumer dropped so that the working and middle classes could afford to invest in a car.

Pause again.

It all seems so simple and obvious doesn’t it? Seek out new but existing technologies. Apply them to what is already done. We can do this in schools. Students use computers and the internet in their own time (which they’re already on anyway) and free up classroom time for more effective teaching and learning activity. Flipping a classroom should be easy!

It’s not though. I assure it’s not. Setting up a curriculum that expects students to do work outside of the classroom will only work if students actually do work outside the classroom and if that was easy, we’d have done it by now, believe me. This is the problem with looking at things conceptually but superficially. The Ford experience helps to illustrate this.

To continue.

While the conveyor belt assembly line idea was obviously crucial it was not the real driver (sorry couldn’t resist that pun any longer) of the model T’s success. In fact, assembly lines had been used before by other motor companies with less fanfare. What really drove the project were far less sensational elements of the process. The car was already a good product. An effective, reliable vehicle, with a look and performance that made it suitable for town and country. Its parts were as standardised as practicable which made it easy to maintain also. Most importantly though, the teams of engineers that oversaw it’s construction were constantly amending and improving the process according to some fairly fundamental principles. These principles are as follows:

  • Put the men and materials in a sequence that means the car travels the least distance towards completion.
  • Always put the tools and equipment in the same place, always in the most convenient place, always close to hand.

Even then it was not as smooth as history, or Henry Ford would like to suggest. Gone, for example, was the heavy lifting but in came hours of standing still and repeating the same actions feverishly. If credit is to be given for ushering in a new age of industrial achievement, would it be unkind to also point out it brought with it RSI? Clearly the job was not yet done. There were still more improvements to be made…

Stop there. Time to summarise.

I think there’s a lot to like about the concept of flipping a classroom. The concept has merit and probably has a long future ahead of itself in mainstream education. But it’s something that will require a very high level of research and development by those in the classroom as to how it works best with their students and even then it will require regular modification from class to class, year to year. In whatever form it takes though, recognition of core principles should keep everyone on track.

Whatever you do, you do for the purpose of increasing the student’s engagement, proactivity, and ownership of their own learning.

My flipped classroom sketch

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A little thanks that went a long way

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It’s one of the joys of writing this blog that I have cause to think back over my career and consider what I’ve learned along the way. Here’s an anecdote about one of the many things I learned in my first year of teaching.

Rewind the clock to the last day of school for that first year of my teaching career. All the departing staff were being farewelled. I was one of them. I’d been a student at this school myself for 6 years and my dad had been a highly respected member of staff before me. Also, some of my siblings were still students here and this all added up in my mind to one inescapable conclusion.

If I don’t leave now I probably never will.

So, having arranged to work the following year in the UK and handed in my notice, I was being farewelled. We’ve all experienced these ceremonies. A senior member of staff will say complimentary things and wish their colleague well before the departing staffer says a few words. I don’t remember too many specifics of what was said about me except to say I thought that it was all very complimentary, indeed highly flattering, and not at all how I had perceived myself.

In my mind I was a work in progress who had just managed to keep his head above water. Someone for whom the word ‘potential’ was particularly significant. Not ‘hopeless’ so much as ever hopeful that I would eventually come to rely less on hope. If you’ve ever seen episodes of MASH where Corporal Klinger struggles in his role as Radar O’Reilly’s replacement, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I thought I was like. I felt I had floundered through the demands of each day’s lesson, day by day, week by week, term by term.

So, when it was my turn to respond to those kind words I wanted to thank everyone who had helped me get through that first year. I thanked the Head of Campus for giving me an opportunity, the many colleagues (most of whom had once been my teachers) who had been supportive, and the photocopying lady who I referred to spontaneously as my “silent partner”. The whole thing took no more than a minute. After all, I’d only been there a year.

What happened minutes later though, has never left me. Jenny, the photocopy lady, came over to chat. She was curious as to why I’d mentioned her. That had never happened before and she was more than a little surprised. So was I when I heard that. Here was a person who took all my stuff and made class sets of it for me. So long as I gave her a few hours notice it would appear magically in my tray in time for a lesson. I felt I was scrambling from day to day but at least I knew this was one aspect of the job that was assured.

I mean, come on, virtually 20 minutes ago I was a Uni student but now I get paid and someone else does this stuff for me! What’s not to be thankful about?

It was 20 years ago. I’ve forgotten almost everything about Jenny but I haven’t forgotten the fact she was noticeably shocked at being mentioned in a staff farewell. It was no-one’s fault but here was a school officer performing an apparently thankless task.

That’s just plain wrong. Schools depend on non-teaching staff. They are just as essential as good teachers.

Fast forward to today. I pop into school to get a class set of work I want to correct before the next term begins. This is the sort of thing that I do all time because I still retain vestiges of the hopeless case I was decades ago. In the staff car park are signs that the Easter holidays won’t start for a great number of my colleagues until Good Friday later this week. We don’t have a photocopying lady at this school but that’s not the point.

Everyone knows the school machine keeps running long after the students have gone home. How many of us notice it keeps running when the teachers go home too?

Loomin’ Boomin’

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Term 1 has finally concluded (phew!) and to start these Easter holidays Casa Hurley has been hit with the loom craze. In fact it would not be too far from the truth to say that my children have become bona fide loomatics in a very short space of time.

Early examples (and 'nancy') loom large on our kitchen table.

Early examples (and ‘nancy’) loom large on our kitchen table.

Early Saturday afternoon our eldest was out with J helping with the shopping and during that expedition a box of the colourful little brace elastics was obtained. By 5pm I’d been asked to build a ‘Knitting Nancy’. By 6pm the boys were checking out Youtube videos while they worked, experimenting with different ways to weave the bits together. By 7pm they had begrudgingly cleared away their stuff so we could eat dinner and a whole new jargon was being spoken around the kitchen table. The concentration levels are intense, creativity is virtually fizzing around the room, and the kids are so involved it’s verging on obsessive behaviour.

Team Hurley 3 2 1 break!

Team Hurley 3 2 1 break!

Let me be clear. This is not a gloating dad posting about his genius children. Let me tell you what this is.

This is the real life that education wants to imitate.

This is an example of young minds being engaged and taking learning into their own hands. They have enough materials, and access to knowledge (both online and in house) at their disposal in order to do things and then do more things and each time do them better.

This is a naturally occurring example of what Sugata Mitra observed in his ‘Hole In The Wall’ experimentation. It’s what he hopes to replicate in his ‘School in the cloud’ project. It’s what made the Khan Academy a darling of the tech world and underpins every wiki, blog, and website that promotes the concept of a ‘flipped classroom’.

This may also be lightning in a bottle and extremely hard to duplicate when the subject matter is more closely tied to the school curriculum. It’s no accident that the best examples of this behaviour appear in our household when the school term is out of the way. Nevertheless, this is what the most progressive thinkers in education are trying to promote.

Now that you know, my advice is to keep an eye out for it and encourage it by not getting in its way too much. That said, I also advise that you have enough of an involvement that the ‘engagement’ doesn’t actually get out of control in terms of time and money. I expect the ‘loomy lunacy’ will burn itself out soon enough and, by contrast, a flipped classroom should ideally be a long, slow burn.

For the record, I’m writing this post on Monday afternoon having just returned home from watching the LEGO movie with the boys. I have one small corner of the table to myself. The rest of it is covered in little plastic bricks and every now and then one of the boys will sing “Everything is Awesome!” or blurt out “SPACESHIP!”

It’s flipping hilarious.

Student Email etiquette

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This week I’m sharing a document that I worked on in collaboration with my senior English Language classes. We were discussing the ‘formality’ of the humble email. It quickly became apparant that this modern text type was far more formal in the mind of the digital immigrant in the room (yours truly) than it was for all the digital natives being taught by him.

As part of our study, I sent out a request to colleagues for examples of emails they had recieved from students. The response was incredible. I was inundated by examples from staff whose correspondance with students was, in their view, striking the wrong note. With these, my classes and I played around with the idea of student email etiquette. Here’s what we came up with.

p.s. All emails were sanitised (edited) by me to keep the register of the language but remove details of the individuals involved well before my students saw them.

Emails were invented and developed as a communication device for the workplace (and schools are workplaces). They are also a modern version of hand written paper memorandums and standard letters. These facts tend to suggest emails require a high degree of formality. However, it is also essential in effective workplaces that they foster a strong working relationship between people at all levels of authority. Therefore, emails require an element of rapport building as well.

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Things to consider:

  • The sender may think their email message has a short life span because they have the luxury of composing it, sending it, and moving on. However an email could potentially exist long after its message is obsolete. Emails only disappear when the receiver deletes it – twice!
  • Basically, most emails are written to inform, instruct, or persuade the reader. To do this without causing unintended offence requires a certain degree of rapport building and attention to politeness.
  • All workplaces are highly stratified and the status, seniority or authority of an email’s sender and receiver are not equal very often. Schools are no different. When a student emails a staff member it is essential that they express themselves in a respectful manner. That said, the reality of this does allow for variety. Students develop a degree of familiarity with staff they work with and it is useful for the expression used in an email to reflect this (courteously of course).
  • There are explicit conventions to correct expression, spelling and grammar when communicating in writing and these are different from the standards we use when speaking. Interestingly though, in the modern era of electronic communication, the distinction between these two standards has always been blurred. The reality is expressing an email message in a spoken style or mode can be very useful. However, it is equally undeniable that spelling mistakes and non-standard grammatical formatting are counter-productive as they detract from the intended message of the email and suggest a lack of care or thought.
  • An email will always inform the receiver of who the sender is and (as long as the subject field is filled in) what is the reason for the message. This means the receiver already has a lot of context and can refer to their past dealings with the sender so that the actual message can (usually) be brief. Nevertheless, there is always the risk a message will carry unintended implications. For example, an email from a student to a staff member sent outside of school hours may imply (intentionally or not) an expectation that the receiver will act immediately. Once again, a level of politeness and rapport building turns of expression can help avoid offence.

So what should a student do?

This is actually fairly simple.

  • Always fill in the subject field with relevant information
  • Sign in and out of emails
  • Don’t play around with fonts, colours and styles
  • Compose your message in a spoken form of expression as if you were speaking to that particular person face to face in class
  • Use standard grammar avoid misspelling
  • Understand that you have the right to expect a staff member to read the email but at a time and place of their choosing
  • Understand that you don’t have the right to expect any action to be taken immediately (or possible at all)
  • Understand that it doesn’t fade away.

Shades of grey when signing in and out

When emailing a staff member it is important to make some use of the conventions of letter writing.

Sir, 

Could I please book a meeting with you regarding my [situation] please.

Thanks

John Doe 10X

In the above example, the student has started by addressing the receiver and finished with appreciation and their name. The staff member who submitted this example did comment on the word “please” being used twice was a little distracting but thought the student had made a commendable effort.

Where a student has a strong working relationship the following opening lines are also appropriate

Hey Ms Smith

I was just wondering if you have a digital copy of the tasks i could have ? 

Thanks John

***

Hey miss hope you enjoyed your holidays do we have [subject]tomorrow ?

Thanks 😀

Choosing not to sign in or out can be as inappropriate as writing with an overly familiar tone. Below are examples to consider rewriting. 

 I want to do a [task] that allows me to [details]. Although I’m not sure whatto do it on. I don’t want to do a basic or common topic like [example]. PleaseHelp 🙂

***

is there anything i should change. (Assignment attached)

***

yo sir I dropboxed my assignment because it wouldn’t print

Steppin’ off and stoppin’ the drip feed

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Ever heard of the 5-step lesson plan? Here’s how it works. As one madly rushes from one lesson to another, consideration is given to what this next class has done recently, needs to complete soon in order to stay on schedule, and should probably achieve in the next hour. This usually takes place in the final 5 strides before entering the classroom and voila – the 5 step plan.

Personally, I never stoop to the 5-step lesson plan. For me it’s usually 3.

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I’m joking about this but only slightly. It has been the case for some years now that I have an expertise over the curriculum I deliver that has allowed me to devote more time to the year level coordinating considerations of my work. Those considerations kept me super busy and since my classes weren’t suffering I let this become the norm. I’d usually map out what I wanted to do with my classes for the week in my mind late on a Sunday night and, think of better ways to teach the same part of the course that I taught last year. That’s about as ‘planned’ as I’d get.

Can’t say I’m proud of it but there you are.

But this year, as previously posted, marks a change of tempo and technique. This year is all about fostering empowerment in the students I teach without losing the things that I know work well so the ‘step lesson plan’ phenomenon is gone and a reformation is underway.

Stopping the drip-feed 

My attempt to empower students starts with information flow. The problem as I see it is that I understand the curriculum inside and out but I have always drip fed this to the students. With the best of intentions I’ve habitually introduced only the most immediate elements to the class unit by unit, week by week. It’s like I was giving them the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that they were expected to complete but I’d only give them six or so pieces each week. Sure, by bounding in dramatically every lesson I was engaging my students but I’d inadvertently trained them to sit there passively and wait for me to provide them with what they need. They only had to sit there and do what I told them (which in most cases was pay attention to me and do what I say).

So, to get around this, I’ve made a real effort to provide the class with the wherewithal to go out and study at their own speed. The school already has a policy in place where we are expected to set and publish assessment dates in the our website at the start of the year so the class already knows when they’ll be assessed. I’ve also given the class the official study design for the subject and made sure they understand what it says, so now they have greater clarity on how they’ll be assessed. I’ve taken all the resources I’d normally hand out slowly and put them on a wiki so that the class can read through any and all of it when they want as well. Lastly, I have started emailing the students in my classes on a Sunday night with details of what I wish to cover in the upcoming week’s lessons. This email doesn’t provide a detailed lesson by lesson plan so much as a detailed heads up so that anyone who wants to read ahead can do so and come to class prepared and any questions at the ready.

This is not really a revolutionary idea but it is based on one. All of this is in keeping with the basic premise of a flipped classroom. Everything (in as much practical detail as possible) is at the student’s fingertips and there is no need to keep checking in with the teacher whether it’s OK to look at something yet.

Promoting mastery

The next item on the empowerment agenda is skill development. I have posted previously on the work I’ve already begun on effective feedback techniques and I’m pleased to say all those processes look to be useful here too. Further to this though is the inclusion of the mastery grid concept. I sat down and had a really good think about what skills each of the tasks used to assess this subject requires from a student. These have been itemised on a spread sheet and (you guessed it) made available to the class.  Now absolutely everything I get my class to do AND everything they choose to do of their own accord is able to be measured in some way.

This has had some quite challenging consequences. Suddenly, the great middle ability masses have a better way of articulating their questions and concerns, and I have the ability to target one or two manageable areas for them to make improvements in over the short term. In fact, as the year has progressed, I find that I am having extremely productive and in depth conferences with students but only managing 5 or so within a 50 minute period. Thankfully the Mastery grid idea allows me to keep track of whose been helped and who to target next time.

There’s much more that could be written here but I’ll leave it for now. Flipping a class is all well and good but too much information in a blog makes for dull reading.

Trust me though, I’ll get back to this stuff before long.

Aiming for better than good

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I know how this is going to sound but I need to say it anyway.

I’m very good at what I do.

False modesty aside, I’m quite comfortable asserting that I still have a passion for my work and that I make sure to share this with my classes. I have an expertise in the material, and I know what it is that students need to do to achieve. I’m a bit of a performer in the classroom and as such I have confidence that I can deliver instructions and subject content in a way that hold a class’s attention. It’s taken me years to get this good and yet now …

Now I feel I need to change.

I’ve suspected this had to happen for a while now and the results of last year confirmed it. Last year my senior class achieved truly excellent marks. While there weren’t too many study scores in the elite level, the data that I received from the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) on their performance showed that every one of them exceeded expectations. VCAA take all sorts of data into account when establishing their ‘predicted score’ and basically every student in my class achieved a score that bettered their predicted mark significantly. The stats showed I had a mixed ability class group and together we ‘value added’ in a truly meaningful way. The stats aren’t the full picture though. The results weren’t affirmation of a job well done. They were proof of a need to change.

You see, as entertaining, and possibly enlightening, as I know I can be as a teacher, at the end of the day there is still a need for the students to act. For year’s I’ve looked closely at the faces of the students in my class and seen that they are all listening. In fact, year after year the students have taken down the notes, answered my questions, completed the tasks set for them and the results have been generally quite pleasing on the whole.

But not all of them have been truly engaged. There has always been a faction that have come to class and done the work out of polite compliance. A group that expect everything to fall into place so long as they turn up, don’t cause a fuss, and churn out what they think I want to see. A group that are not so much lazy students, as they are passive ones. Inevitably their results waver somewhere near the VCAA’s predicted result and, as often as not, drop below it.

When I considered the difference between last year’s group and the groups in previous years there was one undeniable factor. That passive faction was absent. The ‘buy in’ from the class of 2013 was the best I’ve ever experienced. It was a mixed ability class like all the others but, this time, they all showed a level of proactivity that raised their individual standards. For me, to be honest, I think that was just the luck of the draw. So it was an experience that made me wonder what I’m doing right and what I should be doing more of.

I know I bring energy to my lessons. I know that I can make lessons interesting and even entertaining. I know that I try to engage students in learning.

I don’t know that I empower them. Not all of them.

So this year I’ve promised myself I’ll aim to foster empowerment and proactivity in my classes more. Less of the ‘all eyes on me’ front and centre of the classroom routines. More targeted, co-construction in the learning process. The details of what I’m doing will have to wait for the next post but I’ll end with this observation. Two months in and it’s already proven to be difficult, challenging, uncomfortable, and absolutely worthwhile.

Problem? What problem?

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If you can spare the time I recommend watching this ABC TV report I’ve linked below. If not, well here’s a quick summary. The literacy and numeracy of primary (elementary) school children in the Australian state of Tasmania is well below the standards of the rest of the nation and similar OECD nations.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-02-19/education-experts-sound-alarm-over-tasmanian-literacy-levels/5270968

This is fascinating! In fact, I am so fascinated by this that I’m going to rant about it this week. It’s a situation that everyone can learn from. Everyone. Not just Tasmanians, not just Australians, this applies world-wide. Here’s why.

When you take out some of the contextual specifics of this story, what you are left with, is a community, proud of its identity and comfortable with the quality of its education, being forced to confront accusations of gross underperformance.

That can happen anywhere and frequently does. What happens next though is anyone’s guess.

I think most of us would like to think, where a problem is identified, there is a reasonably straightforward process towards improvement. First admit there is a problem, investigate what issues are at the root of the problem, plan a strategy to amend the problem, and then get on with it.

That is NOT what happens in education. Tasmania is a case in point.

1. Folks, we have a problem …

It is a fact that Tasmanian kids have a lower standard of literacy and numeracy than is reasonably expected. The international study referred to in the piece is PISA and the graphs at the bottom of the write up come from NAPLAN. Both studies are rigorous and when they indicate Tassie is significantly below the norm than that is precisely the case. The data is undeniable.

But you just watch Tasmanians try. They will question the validity of the testing and if they can’t get far with that they will question what ‘outsiders’ know about the way we do things here. The older generations will point out that the system was just fine for them and that it’s a system full of traditions they don’t want to loose. Meanwhile Politicians will spout a bunch of parochial slogans in an attempt to keep or win votes. All these reactions were clearly present in the report. The problem will exist in a tense state of recognition like a big pink elephant at the dining table around tea-time without a place set for it.

And I don’t blame them! This is what people do when empirical data implies they are dumb or negligent, or inept. Could anyone seriously believe the general populace of the Island would smile gratefully and say “Oh, thanks so much! You know, we did wonder if we were not up to scratch.”

I’ve seen students, parents, teachers and whole school communities do the same thing when results suggest they’re mediocre.

Heck, I’ve done it myself!

So my first reaction to this report is a genuine hope that people can get past that quickly. The good people of Tasmania are not mediocre, their literacy and numeracy standards are but this can be fixed.

2. Really? What sort of problem?

Even with good will though, fixing this is still tricky. The data points clearly to a fault but does not clearly identify the root cause of the problem. At best, it can imply a few possible reasons. Here are some to name but a few.

  • Education may be a low Government priority.
  • The education system may be underfunded and under resourced.
  • The schools or teaching techniques may be antiquated.
  • Socio-economic considerations may play a part.

It’s interesting to see that while the cause could be all sorts of things, the above TV report notes it is not money. I suspect the problem in not disinterest on the part of the Government either. The case that long-term economic prosperity depends on high standards of education is pretty much set in stone.

I also think it’s interesting that the well respected economist Saul Eslake isn’t looking at finance in his appraisal of the reason as well. Based more on personal experience rather than professional expertise, he lays the blame directly at a small town mentality that he believes is a cultural trait state-wide. I think he may be on to something there.

3. Ok … so … er … what’re we gonna do about it?

The basic contention of the report was there is an over abundance of small schools in Tasmania and most of these should close down and kids sent to bigger ones.

Yep, a state with a parochial small town mentality is sure to love and embrace that suggestion. Of course, this might end up being the key change but I am a little cautious on this as I’ve seen the same thing done in greater Melbourne to little success.

I see suggestions like this from policy makers often. They like to build things, invest in things, or (as in this case) close things. It is something they have greatest control over but it doesn’t lead directly to improved literacy or numeracy because none of these solutions are impacting directly on the teaching and learning in the classroom.

There’s only one thing that directly impacts on that … teachers and learners.

It is possible, indeed probable that by making fewer schools there will be a greater proportion of effective teachers influencing more students. It is also probable that teachers who were operating in smaller schools will have less administrative demands and distractions in a larger institution and thus able to focus on their teaching more. These are positives.

BUT if Saul is right, and the root cause of these results is culturally embedded, the results will continue to show the problem remains.

It’s a beautiful place, Tasmania, and the people there can point to a long list of reasons to be proud. I hope that in the years ahead they can add the way they deal with this issue to that list.

Scripture Obscura: Welcome ‘The Arrival’

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Another podcast and another suggested text. Apologies if the sound quality is a little off. I’m still coming to grips with that element of editing. Click the link below to listen.

http://wp.me/a2N7SF-bk

If you’d like to see what some clever people have already done with The Arrival, I sugggest you check out this site

Don’t let that be a replacement for the real thing though. The book is fantastic.

ps. my background music this time was ‘Sur Le Fil’ by Yann Tiersen.

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Once more … with feeling

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Another year of edublogging? Yes. Yes, on reflection I think I should give this another year.

Much has changed  – no ‘evolved’ – since this project began a little over a year ago. On the personal front, the Sterlinghurleys are all a year older and this has brought with it some quite wondrous developments in their personalities. As for me, I have become considerably greyer and annoyingly more myopic (a development that is certainly not wondrous).

On the professional front, I have a new role within my school. After 6 years I decided I would step away from Year Level Coordinating and have accepted a new position as Director of Additional Needs. This is a newly created position within the school so, while the title is fairly self-explanatory, I may need some time before I can authoritatively explain what exactly I do in this capacity. No doubt this will provide some stimulus for posting as the year progresses though.

Apart from that, I am still in the classroom teaching and learning. In fact, I’m on a bit of a personal mission at present to master more of the principles of a ‘flipped classroom’ and that will definitely provide stimulus for blogging.

So, with the year beginning anew I’ve reviewed the blog here with a view to (hopefully) making some improvements. In the end I decided not to change the theme just yet. Instead, I’ve done some work to better organise my menu list. As you can see, I’ve added a few new options. I went through my archives and categorised virtually every post as ‘personal’ or ‘professional’. I found that often the distinction was blurred but never mind. That’s just art imitating life.

Speaking of art, the three creative projects I began are up there now too. I plan to do a lot more Scripture Obscura this year so they will all be easily accessible in the one place. I have also highlighted the post Your School Life so that more people can contribute to the ongoing poll I started in it. The Header Images remain and I hope to continue to add to them. I would also welcome any original images you might like to donate.

Have a great year everyone. Here we go.

We both said “yes”

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Last week J (my ‘Editor in Chief’) and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. Hard to believe my luck that the girl I met mid 1997 saw potential in a scruffy beanpole with questionable dress sense, but it just goes to show she’s a woman of substance, patience, and has an eye for potential.

We married on January, 9th 1999 in an open air ceremony among friends and family. My memories of that day are of the emotions rather than the details. I remember it was a hot summer day but thankfully not the scorcher that had been forecast. I remember being very nervous about saying the vows we had written. I forget the vows. I remember lots of dancing. I remember relief, exhilaration, and exhaustion.

The wedding was fun. It was special and lively but it was one day 15 years ago now. While not much to that point in my life comes close to it, it was not what I would now consider to be the most important day of my life. As momentous as that day was, the days that followed it have held greater importance. So, in what may prove to be a fool-hardy move, I’d like to start this year’s posting activity with some thoughts on marriage.

The by-line of this blog is “What I’ve learned while teaching” and that is especially appropriate here as I’ve learned a great deal about life since that day and I’ve continued to teach all the while. Most importantly though, it’s what I’ve learned. I am not out to preach to the world secrets for a successful marriage because that would be pompous and judgemental (which admittedly, are characteristics I possess but promise to hold in check here). There are marriages that are happy, long, short, broken, fulfilling and dysfunctional. C’est la vie. What follows are a few observations I feel confident enough to publish despite very little authority on the topic. I’m just hoping 15 years gives me some credibility.

It starts with me …

Many years before I met J my dad, who was driving me to work, brought up the topic of marriage (he had a gift for bringing things up out of nowhere without it seeming odd). He suggested that a good age for considering marriage these (those) days would be somewhere north of 28 years old. I was incredulous. I retorted with “Dad! I don’t plan to get married until next century!” which made him chuckle. In time I came to understand that his point though had less to do with the maturity that comes with age than the maturity that comes with experience. By the time I met J, I had studied, graduated, worked, travelled, and dealt with demons and challenges (not the least of which was dad’s sickness and death from cancer). I had some understanding of how to function as an independent adult individual and how to cope with hardship. I still had a lot to learn – still do – but I’d made some headway on that and it made all the difference when I came to think of sharing my life with another.

For the record I had met and married J before the Y2K phenomenon had been proven anti-climactic. I think that would have made dad chuckle too.

But it’s not about me …

Which is a concept and an approach to living that is easier said than done. But I’ve long since felt that very little in life that is worth doing is easy. When you think about the traditional vows, ‘In sickness and in health’, ‘For richer or for poorer’, ‘For better or for worse’, what strikes me is that there’s an all in quality to the promise and I personally can’t do that if I spend all my time thinking about me.

Half my time thinking about me seems to work for the present.

Perhaps that’s why we also link the word love with the word devotion. I quite like the word devotion. I like the idea of being devoted to something or someone else. Hard to go wrong where two people are devoted to each other.

It’s about something bigger …

It was the opinion of the Ancient Greek play write Aristophanes that love helps people feel complete or whole. That’s an idea that has carried a lot of credibility over the centuries and like so much of the thinking of the ancient classics there’s a lot of undeniable truth to his idea. On reflection though, I disagree with the basic premise. The idea of completion has this implication of ‘job done’ about it that I don’t think fits the situation. I’ve come to believe that, in life, the job is never done. There is always more to do, changes to be made, room for growth. Individuals must embrace this journey for themselves and trust that, in love, they and their chosen partner will compliment each other.

Socrates thought Aristophanes was, Gods love him, barking up the wrong tree too so at least I’m in good company there.

That makes us human.

OK, so after all that, here’s something that is bigger than J and me. There’s a prevailing socio-political definition that considers marriage to be ‘the union of a man and a woman’. It’s a definition that I have noticed is questioned more and more. Personally, I’ve always found this to be so ridiculously superficial as to be mildly offensive. I could use the same definition to explain a mixed doubles tennis team. Marriage is many things; a journey shared, a conscious pairing of souls, a fusion of futures. All of which is publicly expressed through ceremony (sometimes religious, sometimes secular). That it has also always been a status shared between a man and a woman is a matter of historical fact but, as I live my life with J and the family we’ve been blessed with, I just can’t see heterosexuality as the most significant feature.

Commitment is.

The Shadow of Fuji

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By way of a final post for the year I offer you all another of my emails home from our time in Japan. This was an event that left a lasting impression on me and from which I learnt a great deal.

I’ve never been a thrill seeker in the extreme sports mould but occasionally I set myself challenges and push myself a little. Three weeks ago I set myself three fairly big ones.

  1. Climb Mt Fuji
  2. Survive for four and a half days on nothing but Japanese
  3. Do it on my own

J and I have had a long standing plan to return to Tokyo and visit our friend Yuri T and her family. While there T san (Yuri’s Dad, a mad keen mountain climber) and I would climb Fuji san (Mt Fuji) while J and Yuri would take time out to shop and relax.

Unfortunately, the only time we could schedule it was during Obon (the peak travelling season) which, when combined with this summer’s horrendous heat left us very worried about J travelling this far into the pregnancy.

J persuaded me that I should still go and she’d enjoy a few days of solitude (probably the last she’ll have for about 30 years).

Yuri studied in Ballarat for years and is completely fluent but her family have very little English so, since I’d be the only native English speaker in the house, I was hoping to put my Japanese to an acid test.

August 16th Friday morning, resplendent in our hiking gear and carrying bloody heavy backpacks we set off down the road from home, through suburban Tokyo to the subway.

I had planned to climb the mountain in a pair of Iconic Australian elastic sided Blundstone boots but T san took one look at them and politely advised me not to be an utter fool.

The oddity of the sight turned more than a few heads as we went. We “trekked” through the subway, a swanky Department store, the swanky store’s swanky deli where we bought our obento (packed lunch) and onto a bus that leaves from Shinjuku station in central Tokyo for Mt Fuji.

This is how we ‘rough it’ in Japan.

While we had been walking to the subway I had felt the need to strike up conversation that went beyond the usual single sentence question and answer pattern. I felt the longer I put off conversing in Japanese the harder it would get and I didn’t want to spend the whole trip in awkward silence. To this end I told him how Australia’s Uluru was of similar significance to Aussies but that climbing it was a little impolite these days and that souveniring pieces of it very bad. I asked him if he thought souveniring rocks from Fuji was similarly sacrilegious. I knew that the question was absurd and I’m sure he did too but he played along with it and we stumbled through my first rambling conversation in Japanese pretty well. It bode well for the trip I thought.

The Mountain is divided into 10 stations and the fifth (2500 meters above sea level) is as far as you can go by car. In order to climb safely, people climb to about the 8th station and sleep overnight in the huts there. This way a person’s body can acclimatise better to the thin air and avoid altitude sickness. It also means that people can make it to the top in time for the sunrise. It is possible but unusual to start a climb from the first station at the very bottom of the mountain because it can be a long days hike and isn’t advisable unless some serious training has been done beforehand.

We set off from the fifth station at 2 pm and as we went up, we came across the last of the previous days climbers returning. Some of them looked like shell-shocked troops returning from the front. Since I was already worried about my ability to cope with altitude sickness it didn’t exactly inspire confidence. However, I soon found that my frequent trips to our sports centre for a spin on the exercise bike had put me in good stead and we made solid progress.

The first hour was basic bush walking but at about 2,900 meters above sea level we reached old molten lava flows that make for a steep rocky ascent. It was at this point we ran into a number of tour groups that were slowly making their way up the path of least resistance. These groups were threatening to break my rhythm so I moved across to one side, put my long legs to good use, and did a kind of steady scramble up the larger rocks. This was actually a bit of an energy saver but to everyone else it looked like I was racing and T san had to say on more than one occasion to slow down and take it easy.

At the 3,100 metre mark the steep rocks give way to a loose dirt path that zig-zags its way up a pretty steady 10 degree incline. The weather would change quickly at this height as clouds rolled by so there were times visibility was about 10 meters and others when it was bright enough to get sun burnt. Fortunately though we didn’t get any rain.

To my surprise T san took this opportunity to whip out his mobile phone and ring J and then hand it to me. I think he did this to stop me long enough for him to get a decent rest.

It is at this point in the climb bi-lingual signs begin to appear that give helpful climbing tips. My favourite one said, quite sensibly, in Japanese that you should stick to the path and not attempt a direct ascent. The English translation simply said

“DO NOT CLIMB STRAIGHT.”

With no English speaking companion to share this, and no breath left with which to laugh, I took a picture of it and kept going.

Soon enough we reached the eighth station where one will find the Fuji san Hotel which would be our base camp.

The Fuji san hotel is a hut that can house about 300 people. It does this by giving you a space of mattress 200 x 50 cm for you and your pack. It’s as basic as it gets but it does the trick. We set up our little burner outside and proceeded to eat some of the weight out of our packs.

I don’t know whether it was the thin air, the fatigue, or both but food has never tasted sweeter and water never more satisfying. It is around this height that people can begin to feel headaches from lack of oxygen. However, for about 1000 yen ($10AUS) you can obtain oxygen cans that will help you achieve equilibrium. Most of the old dears were buying these cans and taking long satisfying breaths until the can was finished.

After that they usually pulled out their smokes and had a fag or two.

As night fell we watched a thunderstorm, at eye level rage, over far away Tokyo. It was magnificent.

All these feelings of satisfaction were to quickly fade when it was time to get some sleep. I found that a thin atmosphere had two interesting effects when trying to sleep. The first was my resting heartbeat, which floated around 80 beats per minute and made relaxing difficult. The second was that anyone in the room with a propensity to snore was letting rip with full force. Fuji could have erupted that night and I wouldn’t have heard it over the din.

I think I managed to get about an hours sleep before 2 am when we rose en masse to cover the last 400 meters to the top. What surprised me most about this stage of the climb was the sheer press of people. We found out later that there were over 4,608 climbers that day and I think we were starting that day’s climb in the middle of the pack.

Because of the traffic, the air, the dark, and the lack of sleep, the climbing was slow so those last 400 meters took about 2 hours. Nevertheless, we did reach the top with about 40 minutes to spare before sunrise and that gave us just enough time to relax, make a cup of tea (again I’ve never tasted anything as delicious) and find a good vantage point to set up the camera.

I suppose I’m becoming more of a naturalised citizen these days because I have to say the foreigners around me were really getting on my nerves. We were about to watch the sunrise from the top of Mt Fuji after climbing to an altitude of 3,778 meters above sea level and, instead of enjoying the moment, everyone was yapping away over banalities. They just couldn’t shut up about other pretty mountains in their countries (which they hadn’t climbed but were told that the view was beautiful there too) or the nearest Starbucks cafe to their work. However, the gaggling gaijin did eventually put a sock in it when the sun broke through. The Japanese population applauded and cheered. Tokyo was still covered in cloud so the effect was a sea like landscape with the lakes and towns at the foot of the mountain clearly visible.

Once the sun was up T san suggested that we walk around the crown of (what in daylight suddenly becomes quite clearly) the volcano.

What isn’t very well known is that the highest point of the mountain is on the western side far away from the sunrise viewing area. Since the gaggle of foreigners had no interest in anything over there I thought this was a great idea.

The crater at the top of the volcano is impressive. It’s about the size of the playing surface of the MCG (160 meter diameter) and dips about 80 meters down to the centre. Even in summer there are sections still covered in ice and all sorts of instrumentation to measure volcanic activity.

The words “volcanic activity” take on a more menacing significance when you move away from the eastern edge with its souvenir shops, rest stations and hoards of tourists. From the bottom the mountain looks permanent but from here it looks all too fragile.

By the time we reached the highest point on the western edge it was about 6am and we discovered something very special. To the west of Fuji lies the lush green and relatively flat Shizuoka prefecture that, unlike Tokyo, was experiencing a pleasantly cloudless morning. We therefore were lucky enough to see the perfectly triangular shadow of Fuji stretching for miles. In many ways I think the photo I took of this is better than the sunrise.

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After breakfast we made our way down again and discovered the decent to be far harder than the climb. Again the track zigzags down the side with each “zig” about 80 meters long and the gradient between 10 and 15 degrees. The ground is loose volcanic dirt and stone that my feet sank into quite deeply (thank god it wasn’t a wet day!) and there are decent (read ankle spraining) sized rocks everywhere that you have to avoid. I’d say it’s about an 8 km walk back to the fifth station and by the end of it my shoulders felt bruised from the weight of my pack pounding them with each step. I could now see why the previous day’s stragglers had looked so weary.

Nevertheless, I’d done it. Not only had I done it, but T san and I had been chatting away happily for two days in Japanese while climbing and I hadn’t even noticed. It was a very satisfying moment.

When we finally returned to T san’s house. Just before we did though, T san … Eiji … handed me a rock he’d picked up from the top of Fuji. He said he didn’t think they’d miss it.

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I’ve kept that rock on my desk at work ever since.

Happy New Year folks.

S

X-mas Experimentations

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They say joy is in the giving but I have discovered over the years that there is also great joy to be found in the making of stuff for giving, and even some joyous moments in the bragging about making stuff for giving.

Each year, as the school commitments recede, I tend to look for extra curricular projects … probably because I’m an incurable glutton for punishment. Any such projects however must first be assessed according to a rigorous screening process where the effort involved must be justifiable. My Project Justification Criteria is as follows.

  • It must involve a skill I should be better at
  • It must be for the enjoyment of others
  • It must be reasonably time and cost efficient
  • It must have a better than even money chance of not destroying domestic harmony
  • It must allow me to spin a narrative

In truth, I haven’t always managed to completely satisfy the PJC but 2013 proved to be pretty successful so here’s a quick summary of this year’s X-mas experimentation.

Cookie Monster

We were given a fancy cookie extruder thingy last Christmas. It had lain dormant all year until I was asked (some would say challenged) to produce something for the staff luncheon. As you can see, the results were highly satisfactory. I think it should be noted though that the only real trick with this project was disciplining myself to follow the instructions properly. It should also be noted that I find that sort of thing particularly tricky.

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All tied up in a bow

A dear friend and colleague of mine is moving to greener pastures and, knowing him reasonably well, I arranged to be his Kris Kringle (or Secret Santa) as I had this brilliant idea for a present. I thought I’d take some old school ties and turn them into proper bow ties. I mean, come on, how hard can it be? Right!?

It took five minutes on the internet to find my DIY guru (Miss P you are extraordinary) who would help me through the project. Conversely it took about five days to find some suitable school ties to deconstruct for the project. After that, there was about a 2-day turn around from unpicking to the finished product you see below.

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I want to pass on a big thankyou publicly yet moderately anonymously to RBR, who helped me source ties, and PCS, who sewed bravely under pressure.

I also want to say thankyou to whoever the dude is that demonstrates how to tie a real bow tie in this video. I don’t know what you do for a living, but if it’s not in education, your talents are being wasted. See what I mean at

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoUre0ugkmI

While the Extraordinary Miss P can be found at

http://portialawrie.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/diy-bow-tie-tutorial-free-pdf-pattern.html

Oh, and for the record this was an insane idea. If I had a time machine, I’d go back and smack myself accross the head just as I’m thinking rhetorical questions in italics.

Project X under wraps

My life long companion and Editor-in-Chief had hinted some time ago at requiring a particular item that would serve as a way of keeping her favourite earrings neat and tidy. In true hunter-gatherer style, this Christmas I set forth on the quest for such an object only to find that they don’t really exist. Actually, some things that approximate exist but all of them lacked an appropriate colour scheme and all of them were ridiculously (and I mean literally worthy of ridicule here) expensive.

So I’ve built her one.

Now, as I’m writing this post on Christmas Eve and the wonderful woman whose opinion I value the most has yet to see my creation, I’m keeping the item under wraps. Here then is a picture of the item under wraps.

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Hopefully, you will have noted the “elegant” corner on the wrapping which (if I’m lucky) distracts the eye away from my laughably inexpert ribbon and bow. If you too would like to know how to wrap a pressie like the best in the world you should check out this final link.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26qnQNOGDjY

Right, there it is, thanks for reading this, the final post of the year and the gloatiest post of my career.

Once again, my sincere thanks in taking an interest in this blog in 2013. I wish you all a safe and joyous holiday and may 2014 bring you all you need of life.

Love

S

Reward for effort

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It’s been a momentous week.

The Year 12 results were published on Monday. Happily all the students I taught performed within or above our expectations. I’m particularly happy with a few of the students who aren’t the most academically proficient but stuck at the challenge throughout the year. From the layman’s perspective, their achievements would appear unremarkable but to the individuals themselves, and to me, their numbers are great.

I’ll come back to this in a minute.

The week was also a momentous at Casa Hurley. My first born, a now lanky 11 year old sapling, completed his swimming club’s 5km challenge. 200 laps non-stop. A remarkable achievement that is made even more satisfying because this was his second attempt. Ten days earlier, the first attempt had begun very well but, after accidentally swallowing a mouthful of pool water and mixing it with his bottled water, he was sick (literally) and had to retire. He was so disappointed it was heartbreaking. Nevertheless, he returned to the pool and covered the distance brilliantly. That fact he didn’t give up and tried again fills me with pride and admiration.

But I digress. Back to the 12s. Sadly, there is an unintended side effect to the day students learn of their results. Despite our good intentions we all have a tendency to focus just a little bit too much on comparative empirical data. Even though the real challenge is a personal one, and the whole point of the numbers is to help enrol in tertiary courses, comparisons with peers and siblings, classes, teachers and schools, are never far away. The students spend the day being asked “How did you go?” but the subconscious question is really “Is what you got any good?”

I don’t want to be overly critical about this. After all students are asked questions because we all care about them and are interested in them. I think though, that society doesn’t quite know how to process the enormity of their accomplishment and looks for numbers to help put it in perspective.

I caught myself doing the exact same thing with my son’s swim. When I told friends and family of this great accomplishment, I felt compelled to add details of his average lap splits and overall time. That was silly really. His achievement is magnificent as is the achievements of all the others kids in his squad. The slowest swimmer is no less heroic than the fastest. Discussion of times only really serves to take attention away from their performance by, unintentionally, establishing a rank.

So, based on something I learned from my son’s swim, here’s a suggestion for anyone who encounters a year 12 graduate over summer. First, give them a smile, handshake or hug. Next let them know how proud and impressed you are, ask them what they’ll do next, and generally talk about the future. Finally, conclude with another smile, shake or hug.

Comparative measurements, rank orders, and league tables can look after themselves – preferably by jumping in a lake somewhere.

Santa San

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In honour of the festive season here’s a copy of the bulk email I sent to friends and family 13 years ago from Japan. The photo is me in our apartment modelling the first Santa suit … Ho Ho Ho!

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A friend of ours on the parents and friends organisation at a nearby Kidergarten visited in late November with a request. Would I agree to dress up as Santa at their little Christmas break up party and hand presents to the kids? I agreed (how could I not?) but, in all honesty, I wasn’t keen. Not because I’m shy and retiring of course, but my level of Japanese is still awful and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to communicate well in the role.

Also the suit they’d brought along for me to try on was an old second hand thing, designed for a Japanese man of average height. It was, therefore, absurdly small on me.

Part of me hoped that this would mean the gig was off but, two days before the “little party”, another suit (possibly flown in from the States) materialised. Unlike the original model, this one was new and super oversized so, if I threw in a jumper or two I could look positively “plump”. Our friend was in raptures about this and then proceed to explain the schedule. The plan was simple enough.

  1. Arrive at the venue at 11am
  2. Hide in a side room and get changed
  3. Emerge at 11.30 and yell “Merry Christmas!”
  4. Hand out presents to the kids and then make a hasty exit

I should have suspected something at this point. Schedules around here are rarely this simple and it is worth noting that our friend has a talent for understatement that the world of Real Estate would appreciate.

So anyway, on the day I arrived at the venue and was then spirited away to the green room where my costume awaited me complete with a few extra bits and pieces. They had gone out and bought a few Reindeer bells, black gloves, a white wig, a pair of gold frame reading glasses (no lenses) and an utterly massive curly white beard. After putting on the gear I sat there for 20 minutes waiting for my cue. Have you guys seen “Gladiator” yet? You know the scene where the new guys wait to enter the ring and one fella has an accident? I can empathise!

When my curtain call came I was lead to the back door of the darkened room. There was a lady M.C.ing (they have a real penchant for that sort of thing over here) from the stage at the front and when she had built up the suspense amongst the crowd I was given the nod and made my entrance. I shook my bells and yelled out “Merry Christmas” in what I hoped would be a deep voice that conveyed warmth, good will, and the spirit of the season. Instead, I sounded like a moron in a red suit like every other twit who tries to be Santa.

I will never forget what happened next as long as I live. The lights came on and the masses turned around as one to look at me. THERE WERE OVER THREE HUNDRED PEOPLE IN THAT ROOM! The only thing “small” about it was the average height. About one hundred kindergarten kids and associated parents spun around and since every second parent had a digital camcorder to capture the moment, it was like waking up a multi-headed cyborg.

I defy anyone to walk into a situation like that and look “jolly”.

Fortunately, the entrance had been suitably impressive and the crowd erupted with cheers and applause which gave me enough time to regain my composure as I walked to the front of the stage. The organiser later complimented me on my bell ringing technique and thought I was being modest when I said that it was merely a natural reaction to the moment.

I spotted three bags of presents (not hard – they were each about the size of a small car) and was making my way towards them when the MC called me over and I realised with a sinking heart that I was about to be interviewed. A couple of the youngsters from my apartment block thought they recognised their neighbour behind the bushy white beard and so, when the MC asked them if they had any questions for Santa, one of them asked where I came from. I replied in that deep moronic voice that I was from the North Pole. This seemed to settle it for my interrogator as he announced to the room his neighbour was from Australia and that’s south of Japan so I had to be the genuine article. In rapid succession I was next asked how did I get here, why did I come to their party, and what Japanese baseball team I supported.

“Reindeer.”

“To give a present to all the good boys and girls.”

“The Hanshin Tigers … er … HoHoHo.”

The crowd cheered and it looked like I had survived the worst.

Here’s a tip: whenever it appears you have survived the worst, duck your head and run purposefully for the nearest exit. Don’t, under any circumstances, loiter.

Again I made for the presents and again the MC intervened by handing me the mic and saying “Your song.” She also gave me a look that implied, ‘It’s in the schedule that you’re supposed to sing a song.’ I tried to give her a look that implied ‘No-one put that in my bloody schedule!’ but this was lost in translation through the beard and glasses.

Next thing I know a lady is playing the opening bars of Jingle Bells on the piano and I’m singing in a forced and thoroughly unconvincing baritone (I think I was in tune though).

Predicatably, I forgot half the words and so was forced to make some up as I went along. The cyborgs hadn’t missed a second of any of this so if these families ever show their home videos to bi-lingual friends I imagine they will wonder what the line “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin flew away” has to do with Christmas.

Finally, I was allowed to hand out the pressies which was actually a great deal of fun. All the kids were polite and thankful and extremely cute. My only problem was that with my @#$%#%* beard obstructing my view, I had difficulty seeing all the little ones around my feet and I had to walk very slowly and carefully to avoid stepping on them.

After the presents had been distributed I could’ve just about left the party content except that parents holding the kinda kiddies’ younger brothers and sisters suddenly swamped me. It’s amazing how ruthless people can be in the pursuit of a Kodak moment. One particularly zealous dad thrust his 2-year-old daughter in my path with one arm and held out a video camera in the other. The poor kid had no idea what was going on. I patted her on the head and gave her my kindest, softest, most soothing “Merry Christmas hohoho” to which the girl jumped like she’d been electricuted. I couldn’t have scared that poor child any better if I was Stephen King. She howled and scrambled for the dubious safety of her dad who looked like I’d made his year by emotionally scaring his little girl for life.

On the way home I did a quick self-assessment.

Standard of Bell Ringing: Worthy of a one horse open sleigh.

Quality of Singing: On par with an aging Frank Sinatra.

Convincing level of Performance: better than a wine-swilling red costumed bum on the street corner … just.

Rotundity of Girth: Not as good as John Candy but better than Jeff Goldblum.

Overall Impact: Long lasting. In fact, if I’m any judge, there’s one little girl who’ll be in therapy for years.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Scripture Obscura: Farewell Old Man

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My second Script Ob! Woo Hoo! It’s only taken me two months but here’s another offering along the lines I mapped out with “Carnage Unfathomable” (please check that post out too if you’re curious about this side project of mine).

Click here to hear about deHeer

http://wp.me/a2N7SF-9U

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a review of the film by David Stratton;

http://variety.com/2001/film/reviews/the-old-man-who-read-love-stories-1200469650/

Also, here’s a Link to the Madman website. You can search their catalogue and buy a copy here if you can’t find a slightly jaded ex-Victorian Certificate of Education English student in their early 20s willing to part with theirs.

www.madman.com.au

Cheers

Sterlinghurley

Ps. A couple of points about the production values on this podcast:

  • Apologies for the occasional beat box effect when I pronounce “p”. I was trialling a fancy microphone-with-USB attachment when recording my voice.
  • That’s not static you can here in the background. That’s genuine rainfall, direct from the wilderness of the mighty Amazon my friend … does that make it less irritating? Nope? Didn’t think it would. Apologies then on that too.

S

Peter, Gerard and me

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Below is an excerpt of a blog post from my brother Peter. I was so impressed with it and proud of him that I’m spreading its circulation. I should warn you that it’s a little confronting but I encourage you all to visit his site and read the full post which, I’m sure you will agree, is ultimately one of triumph.  

Gerard and Me

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September the 5th 2013 was the 10-year anniversary of my brother Gerard’s death. He was a few kilometers through his 20km ride into work on a sunny September morning when he was unable to stop in front of a turning Linfox truck and was dragged under the wheels. He died almost instantly.

Gerard would have been furious at what transpired. He didn’t want to die – he loved living. His death was sudden and I was totally unprepared for it.

I spent a lot of time with Gerard just prior to his death as we were both living at the family home. In the months before Gerard died he had undergone a sort of awakening. He had been experiencing a destructive holding pattern where he’d broken up with his girlfriend and wanted to go out partying and drinking as regularly as possible. But a strange thing had happened to Gerard at the age of 25 and in retrospect I think it was called maturity.

Gerard had realised what was important to him and mostly that was family and friends. Gerard wanted to be successful and had started up his own IT business that he named Bodinet. Like all good start-ups it was operating out of his mother’s basement. I have no idea what the business concept was but he had purchased a whiteboard so it certainly looked official.

Gerard and I connecting was a good development because we had spent most of our childhood at each other’s throats. Apparently my parents sent him to kindergarten early to get him away from me. I used to bully and hit him regularly. Mum to this day expresses a wish that he would have just punched me back. I have never understood why, as a two year old, I was being held accountable for the inaction of a person literally twice my age.

Clearly I had developed some form of persuasion quite young because as a toddler I had convinced Gerard to get into the family Holden Kingswood station wagon with me, take the hand brake off and go for a drive. The Silver Birch in the driveway foiled our plans.

My nascent psychopathy aside, Gerard did fight back. Over the next fifteen years he easily dominated me through either his physical strength or verbal ridicule. Gerard ran rings around me and I was in awe and a little scared of him. We shared a room with my twin brother James for nearly ten years. He had the top bunk and I was relegated to the lower strata that the bottom bunk represented. Intermittently he’d express his rage after I had pissed him off somehow by jumping down off the top bunk and punching me.

Gerard though was not a mean person and I know he truly loved me. Like the rest of us he was angry about our father dying. I remember snooping through his belongings to come across the aftermath of one of those self-reflection circle jerks they made us do in High School during a religious education retreat.  I think the topic was ‘what God means to me’ and he had written in his scrawl that made chicken’s scratching look like calligraphy:

‘I don’t believe in God. If there was a God he wouldn’t let bad things happen to people. If there was a God, why did he let my father die? I don’t believe God exists.’

The irony of Gerard’s theistical convictions, or lack thereof, was that his funeral was presided over by a bishop and three priests, and attended by about twenty nuns whose computer network he maintained.

I got to know Gerard really well in the months before he died and we had long since overcome any animosity towards each other and become partners in crime. We shared many of the same characteristics. We would always pick a family or friend up from anywhere at any time of night. If there was someone needing a lift, and we had a car, it was our duty to ensure that they arrived at their destination no matter how much of an inconvenience it was. If someone needed help moving it is our duty to turn up ready to chuck their worldly belongings into the back of a hired truck only to repeat the process in reverse when we arrive at our destination.

A characteristic of a sudden death is that it’s all over by the time you get the news. There is nothing you can do. There is no hope you can cling to, no cure they may find. No search party that can be hobbled together to scour the depths of a national forest. I got the phone call from my Mum at 11:00am at work telling me Gerard had died and that I had to come home.  The moment was surreal and the shock still palpable. The last time I saw Gerard alive was about 8:45 that morning when I was going up the stairs to drive to work. We were both late. Gerard and I were always late for work.

Gerard would have been furious at what transpired. He didn’t want to die – he loved living. Gerard was not going to be pushed around by anyone.

The next time I saw Gerard was in the Tobin Brothers funeral home in Blackburn five days later when we went to view the body. His body was red and swollen, his fingernails clipped and he had been dressed in his regular clothes.

“Don’t you see?” my Mum said as we my family sat outside the viewing room in stunned silence, “wherever he is, here’s not there”. She had already formally identified his body at the Coroner’s Office five days earlier.

What about the driver? My mother often wondered about his welfare. He didn’t mean to kill my brother. He wasn’t drunk and he wasn’t speeding. His address from the police report shows he lived barely two kilometres from my family home. The witness reports leave no doubt about how upset he was. He was just a guy doing his job.

This was a tragedy not a crime. With death you have to surrender and it is a really difficult thing to do. Life makes you want to fight and look for activity and meaning.

Death is a very difficult thing to accept and there were two issues I had a particular problem resolving with Gerard’s death; the utter powerlessness that I was forced to submit to and the death of Gerard’s voice.

Ultimately I accepted that nothing further would happen. I surrendered to powerlessness but confused it with hopelessness. Over the next few years Gerard kept appearing in my dreams. I used to wake up and have to remind myself he had died, breaking the news to myself every morning. I told this to a therapist once and she said I should view this as an amazing thing that Gerard lives in my dreams. I didn’t buy it.

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At Time of Writing

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My senior English class are sitting their final exam. Right now. As I write this. In about 30 minutes a colleague will knock on the door and hand me a copy of the paper and I’ll see whether I’ve prepared those kids well or not.

“Don’t worry about what mark you’re going to get. Make sure you come out of that exam knowing it represents your honest and best efforts.”

In honour of the occasion I have my year 11’s sitting a practice exam that I’ve scaled down to fit our 100 minute double period. After all, why should the seniors be the only ones to have fun? Share the love I say. So, at the business end of the school year, in a silent and seemingly serene part of the world, everyone is busily writing – except me. Oh the irony! While my students are all busy putting pen to paper I sit here at a laptop struggling to explain coherently my sense of the situation.

“You’re task is not to answer the question but respond to it in a way that gets all the relevant ideas out of your head and onto the paper.”

Actually, I’ve written pages of stuff for the blog over the last two weeks. None of it is really appropriate for publishing though. Most of it has been reflecting on the nature of exams. How the last term whooshes by and is now a bit of a blur. How, in those final weeks leading up to today, my role becomes one of mentor and coach rather than teacher. How I help improve writing technique mostly by managing each student’s expectations and anxiety levels. How it becomes an ever-present, even an all-consuming distraction.

Some of it has been philosophical analysis on the symbolism of school for life or life for school. I even reviewed one of the texts we’ve studied in class with intentions of showing how this says something about education more broadly. With so much information to impart I am struggling to express it. I’m exactly where I was when I was a student myself sitting exams. Everything I do with these kids is geared towards avoiding this.

“The only thing worse than complete rubbish is incomplete rubbish. You get no marks for a blank page.”

Mrs Sterlinghurley, my editor in chief, has dutifully read several drafts and very kindly pointed out that it’s all been a bit too intense and hard to follow. Which is true. My wife must love me very much to have endured reading it all and not resented the waste of an hour or so of her life.

“The exam doesn’t favour the smartest, it favours the prepared.”

So, as I write this now, my colleague has been and gone. I’ve had a chance to read the exam. The essay topics in section A ‘Text response’ are good with lots of implications for the knowledgeable and prepared writer. The prompt for Section B ‘Writing in Context’ is useful so students who have a plan of attack for this should be able to execute it. The text for Section C ‘Analysis of language’ shouldn’t confuse anyone. They should be able to prove their worth.

“Remember the exam is out to test you, not trick you.”

In three minutes my year 11s will be done. In a few hours I’ll try to catch up with a few of my seniors as they leave. They all have other exams to study for now and their minds will be elsewhere soon.

You know what? That’s all that matters. Best I don’t over think this. Mission accomplished. Job done.

Students were warmly greeted by these signs this morning.

Students were warmly greeted by these signs this morning.

A thin blue line

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Once upon a time I worked as an English language assistant in Japan. One day I’ll write a book about that experience but not today. Today, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to refer to one small moment in time – a non-fictional moral tale if you will – and then follow up on my last post.

Education in Japan is serious stuff. A lot of pride and money is invested in it. It starts to really get serious as students begin the process of moving from Middle School to High School. To that end, one of my roles was to help prepare the students who were hoping to enrol in High Schools that had a respected English program. I’d run mock interviews and help correct short written tests.

On one occasion the English teacher asked me if I’d correct a bright young third former’s most recent test for spelling and grammar. The student, a shy bespectacled little girl, stood in front of me clearly sweating bullets before I’d even started to look over her work.

Her test was perfect. Flawless. She had nothing to be concerned with I thought, as I looked over the paper, so I proceeded to slightly dramatically (I know, I know, ‘slightly dramatically’ me of all people) whip lovely big red ticks next to each answer. Occasionally I’d look up at her with a broad grin of encouragement and fail to notice the colour draining from her face. I noticed it once I was finished though because when I handed back to her the test, which had achieved a perfect 100% and was covered in ticks all over the page, the girl was clearly on the verge of tears. She politely took back the paper, graciously thanked me for my time, and raced out of the room before she lost her composure all together. I sat there thinking how amazingly grateful some of these young students were in this country.

Later I caught up with the English Teacher and related this event. She was horrified. All Japanese teachers mark correct responses with a circle (very Zen when you think about it) and incorrect responses with a slash. To this student, the difference between a tick and a slash was indistinguishable so she had assumed her answers were all wrong. In her mind she was days away from a High School entrance exam and this evil sadist correcting her practice test was taking delight in emphasising she was utterly hopeless. We soon tracked her down and straightened out the misunderstanding but I suspect therapy was required out of hours.

So here’s the moral of the story; the standard of assessment is secondary to the way in which the assessment is delivered (assuming you actually want that assessment to be fuel for improvement).

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Right so now that I’ve confessed to that lets fast-forward to events of the last few weeks. In my last post I explained my plan to re-jig the way I give feedback to my senior students. The detail is in previous posts (‘Feedbactive’, ‘Guess what’s in my head’) but basically here’s the plan. In an attempt to make this process last longer than 15 seconds I first had the students complete a reflective task and then handed back their work resplendent in blue highlighter pen. They then completed a set of self-assessment tasks before I’d hand over their grade complete with my comments. Here’s what I learned.

  1. The time spent in genuine reflection on the merits of the work went from 15 seconds to 30 minutes.
  2. When students wrote down their explanation of what they thought the task was, in exactly 13 words, the specificity and detail in this mirrored the quality of their work. In other words, a student that explained vaguely that the task was basically an essay about ‘stuff’ delivered exactly that and their mark reflected a lack of sophistication and detail.
  3. The highlighted sections intrigued students. I had to repeatedly explain how the sections highlighted meant that I thought that section was either ‘done well’ or ‘could be done better’ and it was their initial task to judge this for themselves. It led all students to really critically examine their work and even conference it with their friends.
  4. As part of the process I gave them a blank copy of the assessment criteria and asked them to give it a grade themselves. Most students accurately guessed their standard to within 2 marks out of 50.
  5. Nothing much has changed in 12 years. Students still consider me an evil sadist.

Before I wrap this up, I think 3 other observations should be made here. The first is that this constitutes a small sample size and a work in progress. The second is that, as a work in progress, this activity has so far only encouraged the students to reflect on their work. The process of taking this new found self-awareness and making meaningful improvement has yet to occur. I have a plan for this though so stay tuned.

Finally, it’s important to remember that nothing happens within a vacuum. The students involved in this process are Year 11s and it so happens our year 12s are on the verge of their final exams. There’s a heightened sense of ‘next year that’s me!’ in my classrooms. In fact we had our final whole school assembly on the morning I ran this little experiment and all the students had just heard the school captain (of whom I’ve written before) quite eloquently urge everyone in the room to be proactive and independent in their learning. That turned out to be a ‘perfect storm’ in terms of students being open minded to something a little different.

That’s at this stage gentle reader, for the moment I’m giving myself an ‘A+ for effort’ on this one and hope I ‘can keep up the good work’ as I strive to ‘do better’ in the future. Feel free to try anything I’ve mentioned here yourself or contact me for further clarification. I’d love to know how it works in your classes.

Guess what’s in my head

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I’ve posted before on the subject of corrections (see ‘feedbactive’) and am taking a break from a pile of them right now to clear my head and vent ever so slightly, while maintaining a weekly publishing regime.

In other words; procrastinate shamelessly.

Here’s the thing, It takes me anywhere from 7 to 15 minutes to read, assess and comment on a senior English or English Language (a kind of linguistics subject) essay. Multiply this by 20 to 50 and there’s a kind of ‘Dementors kiss’ effect where the temperature drops and all the happiness leaves ones body through close proximity.

I’m neither proud nor happy to admit this because I love my job and I respect my students and the work they do. Still, if I’m honest, I need to admit that corrections are hard work. Here’s why.

There is a decidedly unhelpful ‘reward for effort’ issue involved here. I can measure the time it takes to go through the process of correcting work in minutes. Sadly, the time taken by students to look at this is measurable in seconds. All the underlining, commenting in the margins, careful consideration for what constructive commentary should be offered for improvement is treated as so much Christmas wrapping. Maybe not all but certainly most students tear through this and just look at their grade before ‘filing’ the work away.

Gutting! Not that I’m bitter about it or anything but, if this was all that actually mattered I could fly through my corrections in no time. The mark a piece will get takes virtually no time to establish. It’s all the skill building and constructive commentary that takes time.

Dropping all this effort is not an option so I find I’m increasingly interested in looking at ways to break this vicious cycle.

My latest idea is to play ‘guess what’s in my head’ with my classes. With my latest round of corrections I’ve put away the red pen and picked up a blue highlighter. Wherever I find a word, phrase, idea or grammatical construct I would normally make comment about I have highlighted it but intentionally not written a comment. I have literally highlighted the areas I found noteworthy. Next, in a variation on the activities in mentioned in ‘feedbactive’ students will complete a few simple tasks designed to get them actively thinking about the work they undertook and then I’ll give them the piece back. Their task will then be to re-read their work and consider for themselves what it was I thought was worth highlighting. Once done, each student needs to sit down with me for a minute and conference what they think they’ve learned about their work and present skill level. Then I’ll hand over the assessment sheet complete with my comments and the grade.

Good pedagogical practice? Revenge? Probably a bit of both.

Better get back to the pile. I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

Scripture Obscura – “Carnage Unfathomable”

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“What do you mean they’re teaching Lord of the Flies still? They were doing that when my Dad went to school!”

If you have ever wondered what kids read in schools these days and assumed it’s stuff you studied yourself back in the day, than you are probably right.

There’s a real art to the selection of texts for study and it’s one that is subject to an awful lot of considerations.

So this post is the first in what I hope to be an ongoing series where worthy but unfashionable or obscure texts are offered for consideration.

Scripture Obscura is going to be my attempt at giving oxygen to texts that I think are worthy of study but are (presumably) overlooked. Here’s how I see it working.

  • The posts are designed with teachers, students and parents (so basically you) in mind.
  • Everything is on the table. ‘Scriptum’ is Latin for ‘text’ so plays, films, novels, and even (gulp) poetry are possibilities.
  • The text and creator will be ‘introduced’ in the post but not analysed in great detail. The idea is that others will read/view the text and study it themselves. I’m mostly interested in introducing the factors that brought the texts into being and hopefully you’ll be curious enough to pick it up from there.
  • I’m going to post these in a podcast style because I’m obviously at a lose end with nothing better to do with my time … and I want to get better at this format.
  • These podcasts will be short. Like my attention span.
  • The subject matter will be open to the public. If you, gentle reader, have suggestions for the posts I will be happy to use these. I will be even happier if you go some way towards writing the script for it too!

This first podcast is a little rough around the edges but it’s out there at least. If it sounds like I’ve recorded myself in a barn while suffering from a cold it’s because I pretty much did. I expect I will get better at it as we go.

Hope you enjoy it.

One final thing. The music in the background is “The Irving Rockman affair” by The Bachelors from Prague. If I could find a way to resurrect that band’s popularity to modern society I’d do it too.

It is a tale told by an idiot

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Ever wonder why schools persist in teaching Shakespearean texts? Isn’t there something newer and fresher that we could be getting students to read?

It’s a common complaint and I feel an unfair one. Shakespeare’s works are truly extraordinary and their impact on modern society is so pervasive and fundamental we don’t even know it’s there. So really I’d argue a better question to ask is why do schools persist in teaching Shakespeare badly and by badly I mean the following scenario.

A unit of work, entirely teacher directed, where students are appointed to read the text aloud in class (with no pre-reading preparation time) for as long it takes to complete the play. Thereafter the class spends however many lessons it takes to discuss and write essays on the text and finish up watching a movie version like this is some sort of treat for surviving.

I admit I’m painting a fairly extreme and sardonic picture of English classes here. Lets hope I’m not too accurate. But even if I am exaggerating the scenario is fundamentally correct.

  • Teacher centred class activity with little student autonomy
  • Little if any encouragement of creativity
  • A dogmatic approach to analysing the text in its entirety
  • A thematic focus that targets future assessment

Arrgh! Enough! “Avaunt and quit my sight” I say!

There are better ways of exposing young minds to some of the greatest literature on the planet. I have no real authority to suggest the best way but, having taught many plays over the years, I am absolutely certain of what doesn’t work. So here are some suggestions, which I promise you have worked in my classroom.

Be a flipping spoiler

When we watch a movie or a play for entertainment we begin at the start and see it through to its conclusion. We read books the same way – start to finish. But I would suggest that’s not how to study Shakespeare effectively. Actually, any text really. I always set the class the task of finding out as much about the narrative as they can on their own. They will certainly need to be guided in an analysis of the text, but they don’t need help in learning the storyline. I’ve read that some bloggers call this ‘flipping’ the classroom and, in a way, this is also in keeping with the principles of Sugata Mitra (see ‘What have we got to lose?’) as the students are driving their own learning. Occasionally I’ll start our work on the unit in the class with a quiz or a play trivia game that affirms in the students’ mind that they already know a lot.

Basically, I want to avoid a drip feed like process where students are relying on me to lead their slow march through the play. They should go into the whole thing already knowing that Hamlet will die, Romeo and Juliet too … and Julius Caesar … and Macbeth. The plays are 400 years old and I think we can turn off the spoiler alert. The thing that makes these plays awesome is not the fact that these characters die but why they die. 

Be bloody, bold and resolute

I strongly suggest skipping (what you consider to be) the boring bits, gloss over unnecessary or monotonous subplots, and above all else play with it. No self-respecting director would force their audience to sit through every line unedited and nor should a teacher. Again, I’m guilty of sacrilege in the eyes of purists but I’m only doing what I’m told the players did themselves. In every play there are crucial sections of dialogue that I want my class exposed to so I shamelessly target these and let the rest take care of itself. For example,

  • Julius Caesar is an incredible play for three acts. It peaks with the death of JC himself and Mark Antony’s speech that turns the crowd against the conspirators. I’ve always analysed the play with my classes up to this point in great detail and then glossed over the rest. Sorry Brutus, no one cares about you really.
  • Act 4 Scene 3 of Macbeth is absolutely fascinating … once you have ignored the first 159 lines of it and started from where Ross walks on stage.
  • The Merchant of Venice is a mess. It has the action bouncing from events in Venice to events in Belmont like it’s a tennis match. I tend to cut and paste it for the sake of sanity. We start with the early action in Venice first (Act 1 Scenes 1&3) then some Belmont scenes (Act 1 Scene 2, Act 2 Scenes 1&9 and Act 3 Scenes 1&2) and then Venice again (Act 2 Scenes 3-6 and Act 3 Scene 3). You will perhaps have noticed that I’ve missed a few scenes altogether and I remain unapologetic about this because nothing is getting in the way of a close scrutiny of Act 4.

It’s a play so be prepared to play with it

Play with the play wherever possible. Insert little activities into the lessons as you go. I aim to cover a scene or two each lesson and run quick (10 minute) activities that are relevant to that scene. The sheer magnitude of material that is in existence on Shakespeare is far beyond my ability to itemise here so lets just say you google it and keep an open mind to what you can do. Essentially, the aim is to promote thinking and creativity and I believe few English texts can match Shakespeare’s work in this activity. 

One man in time plays many parts

I use a great deal of multimedia tools these days but I rarely show a movie version of the play from start to finish. I find that this tends to stifle creativity. If it’s bad students tune out and if it’s good they defer to the director’s interpretation and don’t bother to come up with their own.

Instead, I tend to use an audio version of the play so that the class can read along and hear the lines fluently and expressively. When we’re ready I’ll show multiple movie versions of the same scene. Once again, I only target some scenes. In showing the same scene from more than one movie we can better discuss what lines have been highlighted or cut and how that affects character development. Even the low budget productions are fantastic when you only watch a fragment. Also, Google has hundreds of images from past professional and amateur productions. These are great for suggesting set and costume design.

Once again, the aim is not so much to memorize quotes for the inevitable essay but to encourage multiple interpretations. Assess the class in whatever way you must but measure your success by how much the students can do to justify their opinions. There will always be some students who still hate Shakespeare’s stuff but at least they will be eloquent about why they dislike it.

Oh, and there will be quite a few of them who will still regard Shakespeare fondly long after they’ve forgotten who introduced them to it.

Shakespeare for the Hardcore fan

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I love Shakespeare’s stuff but I don’t think I qualify as a hardcore fan. For a start, I only know the plays and sonnets that I have had to study or teach – a total of 10 plays and a dozen poems. I have never picked up his complete works with the intention of reading for pleasure on a cold winter night and, while I have been known to watch a performance or movie, I have done so with slightly less frequency than … say … 10 pin bowling.
In fact, while I say I love Shakespeare, I am happy to commit sacrilege in the eyes of people who really do love The Bard. For example, some of you would know that a debate has existed for centuries as to whether William Shakespeare was, in reality, a fraudulent front man for someone else who wished to keep his identity anonymous. There are some people who have devoted their lives and staked their reputations to either proving or disproving this. In my opinion it is entirely possible and even probable Shakespeare wasn’t the man we think he was but I don’t really care because (and this is the thing),
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

So, in the interests of clarity allow me to elaborate a little more. I admire the works that we attribute to Shakespeare, and I absolutely love teaching it to my students. I’ve been an English teacher for 20 years now and, in all that time, teaching Shakespeare’s plays has been a joy that has never lost its appeal. If I do say so myself, its something that I have managed to work on and improve to a point where I am prepared to state publically this is my super hero power.
What’s more, I am prepared to share my secrets with each of you. Here then – in five acts – is the Sterlinghurley playbook for encouraging awareness, appreciation, and even a love of Shakespeare in a senior mixed ability classroom.
Act 1: Forward Defence
It is not unusual, on starting a Shakespeare unit, for there to be an opening lesson that attempts to put Shakespeare’s world and works into some sort of context. I’ve seen lots of study guides and teachers notes that do this and deliver interesting information on the Globe theatre and Elizabethan society and so on. All of this is genuinely very useful but I feel that, as an introduction, it is counter productive. For those in the class who are not enthralled by a discussion of men in tights and codpieces, speaking in iambic pentameter, there is a lot about an ‘Intro to Shakespeare’ that is dry and disengaging. I suspect such lessons, as good intentioned as they are, really just send a signal to many in the class that we are about to start something ‘boring’ so its best to hunker down and let the teacher make much ado about nothing for the next few weeks.
Therefore, in my first lesson of a Shakespeare unit I aim straight at the heart of the rogues in the room. Everyone opens their workbooks and takes down the following heading.
“Reasons why we hate Shakespeare”.
There are always some in the room who engage with this and point out that they don’t actually hate Shakespeare and this invariably leads to useful class discussion.
Generally, classes emerge on the other side of the 10-20 minute discussion admitting the following
1. ‘Hate’ may be too strong word for it but no one is actually looking forward to this unit.
2. The reason they aren’t looking forward to it is that they fail to see what all the fuss is with this Shakespeare guy.
3. They know that they are expected to recognise it as awesome but it is in a language they can’t understand and
4. It is old and irrelevant with nothing remotely useful for them in their 21st century existence.
I think these are valid points of view and I’ll even give them to the class if they don’t offer them. However, having conceded this much, I point out that all the above are merely reasons why someone may not make an effort to learn something over the next few weeks. They will not be accepted as excuses. I go further and make them a solemn promise. I promise that, if they come to our exploration of (whatever we’re studying) with an open mind they may or may not like it, but they will assuredly appreciate it. This never fails to have even the most sceptical students’ thinking. Their faces betray a look that tells me they are thinking about the difference in my emphasised words. Got’em!
Now to keep’em. In what’s left of the lesson I reinforce the message with a little analogous activity (I’ve never been a man to miss a metaphor). With great solemnity, I explain that they are about to take part in a time honoured rights of passage and that, for this to truly work, everyone must close their eyes, put their heads on the desk and, for the next minute and 57 seconds, promise to ignore everyone around them and just listen.
Then I play this.

I could, of course, play lots of things but I’ve always played this because it’s a track from Another Way’s 2002 self-titled album and my little brother is the ‘vocalist’ (I use that term advisedly).
Again, the response from my mixed ability classroom is predictable. Everything from Wayne’s World style head nodding endorsement, to looks of disgust that rebuke me and suggest they want the last 2 minutes of their lives back. These reactions are the spur with which I prick the sides of my intent.
“So what do we think of that?” I ask and what is left of the lesson explores why some liked it and some didn’t. Even those who don’t like it admit that it has a beat, and pattern, and structure. It has purpose, energy and passion. Conversely, those that loved it must admit that they understood virtually none of the lyrics but that it didn’t really matter. Everyone can see that further analysis would reveal its meaning and that the fact I have a personal connection to the piece makes it just a little more interesting. You don’t have to be Hardcore to get it.
“Right then,” I say, “let’s see if we can’t apply the same principles to Shakespeare and get something useful out of that too.”
And that’s it. Well, that’s Act 1 anyway. I’ll save the rest for next time. Adieu gentle reader, as a wise man once said, Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Probabilogical

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One of my classes has completed a unit on etymology recently and I am now inspired by the idea that I might be able to invent a new word myself. In fact I might even make a genuine contribution to the language and discuss a concept that has been bugging me for ages all at the same time. Amazingly, I suspect there is no word for the concept I’m thinking of and, since a quick check online informs me (note this – it is important I did this) that my new word doesn’t yet exist with another meaning, here I go.

We live in the information age and authoritative facts lie at our fingertips. So why is it that half understood concepts that don’t stand up to scrutiny still proliferate? There was a time when the general public could be excused of collective naivety but time has passed. We all spend too much time linked to smart phones these days to get away with that excuse.

I think the first thing that needs to be done is to give the phenomenon a name. Something that doesn’t have too nasty a connotation but describes an undesirable thing nevertheless. Something that sounds ‘bumpy’ like riding a bike down a rocky hill without your feet on the pedals. Something like this.

Prob·a·bi·log·i·cal [probuh-bi-loj-i-kuhl]

adjective 1. In accordance with assumed principles broadly accepted in society but not supported by evidence: the idea that asylum seeking refugees who come to Australia without paperwork are queue jumpers and law breakers is probabalogical.’

Ok, so I’ve chosen an example that probably wouldn’t make it to dictionary.com on account of its political sensitivity (here in Australia at least) but it’s currently my word and it’s definitely my blog so I’ll stick with it as it also happens to illustrate my ulterior motive.

For the record, the United Nations lists as a human right a person’s capacity to seek asylum from persecution in their homeland. It doesn’t guarantee asylum, just the right to seek it, and it certainly implies that such people should not be demonised for their predicament.

And, since I’m in a clarificatious mood, I should also point out that the numbers of asylum seekers that come to Australia is ridiculously small by global standards and, even then, the refugees who get all the attention (those that arrive by boat) are a small fraction of a small fraction.

And the overwhelming majority of claims by such people are found (after years of scrutiny) to be legitimate.

These facts are well documented yet year after year, with heartbreaking consistency, I teach class loads of teenagers who believe the nation is being over run by sneaky and undesirable lawbreakers. It’s not as if there isn’t a wealth of information out there. It’s not as if the facts aren’t easy to find or grasp. It’s not even the case that my students are a generation of unempathetic narcissists – actually, most of the students I teach are quite keen on the idea of being active on social justice issues.

Their opinion on this issue is just probabalogical.

So there you go folks, have that one on me. In fact, have three new words for the price of one since ‘clarificatious’ and ‘unempathetic’ didn’t exist before this post either. Use it to describe any popular or widespread views that are demonstrably inaccurate. I’ve added it to my spell checker so that the squiggly red line no longer appears. Hope you feel it useful enough to do the same.  

Oh, and should you come across probabalogicians, first take a deep breath and then, as helpfully and good naturedly as possible, suggest that they ‘Google it’.

Room 644

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As my class are currently writing a piece on ‘Schools of the Future’, I sit at the back and observe both them and the room itself. If walls could talk, my Year 11 English classroom would have something to say. It is 30 square feet of floor space that has seen a lot in its 50 years of service.

Actually, I think the room would embrace the opportunity to voice an opinion on the subject of the future of education. I imagine a cranky, aged voice, like that of a battle hardened war veteran, whose rasping tones stop you dead in your tracks as it says, ‘So, you want to know ‘bout the future do yer?’ Well guess what? The classroom of the next century looks just like me! I’m tellin’ yer, everything will be new but nothing will change.’

It’s just as well they can’t talk really. No one needs a lecture from a brick wall that thinks it’s Nick Fury and sounds like Oscar the Grouch. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of evidence before me to suggest that my imaginary tough old timer has a point.

Truthfully, 644 is not an unpleasant space. The walls are painted cream and the carpet is blue … well, ‘greyish-blue’. There are new aluminium framed windows down the side with new blue blinds. On the wall opposite the windows are pin boards painted teal. There’s another pin board at the back and an enormous white board at the front. Probably best not to spend much time describing the stuff pinned to the boards. It’s furnished with sturdy steel framed tables and chairs. There’s a grey granite laminate finish to the table tops and the chairs are a gunmetal grey. The room is air-conditioned and there is a projector attached to the wall that uses the whiteboard as a screen. There’s cabling that allows teachers to connect their computer to the projector, and there are speakers that link to this and the schools public address system.

Then there are the remnants.

There’s a clock on the wall that hasn’t worked since the battery ran down. It sits there untouched, inoffensive and obsolete in an era where every student has the time in the top corner of their computer screen. A cupboard looms behind the teacher’s desk that once housed audio-visual equipment and is now locked and utterly ignored. There’s also a long thin casing that runs the entire perimeter of the room just above the standard desk height. This houses the plugs and cables that once connected computers to the LAN or the net. Now that there’s wifi capability on the building however, this feature is more aesthetic then practical. A bit like the off road gear on city SUVs.

Finally, there is an array of power plugs to be found all over the room in seemingly bizarre places. Two or three dot the wall around the whiteboard where TVs, videos, and DVD’s were once fixed in place. Another is near the door where the original PA speaker, long since replaced, was once positioned. My personal favourite is the plug that looks down on us all from the centre of the roof. Last year it was practical and functional, powering a computer projector that hung there. This year an upgrade has meant the new projector rests just above and 1 foot out from the whiteboard. I expect this too will be replaced before long with a fully interactive smart board and there will be no projector in 644 at all. Once that happens, I wonder how long it will take before a student looks to the heavens and noticed it. It should make for an entertaining and spontaneous exercise in lateral thinking.

Truly 644 has a point if it wants to assert ‘the future is me’. Without knocking down and beginning again, the classroom of the future will, in all probability, look like the classroom of the past with retrofitted upgrades. Thus far history has repeated itself with blackboards replaced with a green blackboards (retaining the old name regardless) and inturn replaced with whiteboards that are replaced with smartboards. From time to time improvements will mean new furniture, more pleasant colour schemes, more durable surfaces and greater mechanisms for controlling light and climate.

It’s a prediction that I know doesn’t thrill some educators who are quick to whip out black and white images of nineteenth century students straight backed in precise rows. Personally, while I’m not in love with it, I think looking at these sorts of images and saying ‘Nothing’s changed!’ has some validity but misses the mark a little. If schools aim to be progressive and innovative in a way that meaningfully improved the quality of education, I think more effort should be made to use the space provided rather than worry about how to fit it out.

Remember, I’m sitting at the back of my class right now. I have the student’s eye view (come to think of it, I have the disengaged student’s eye view). From here the implication is that what matters is up the front near the Whiteboard, and the teacher who (currently isn’t) standing there using it. Over the years I expect those teal pin boards have had wonderful classroom displays but they are literally on the periphery and out of sight and mind. Then there’s the furniture in 644. In optimizing durability, what has been sacrificed is flexibility. Therefore, it’s very hard to make use of the other walls or position students another way.

I’m not really trying to suggest that swivel chairs and wall art are the true way of the future. I do think though that the future of education lies in genuinely empowering students and making a system that gives them more of a focus. 644 has always been set up to focus on a teacher. A successful strategy of the past might need to be tweaked a bit for the future.

What have we got to lose?

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A few months ago I wrote a post about Sir Kenneth Robinson and the TED talk that brought him a great deal of attention and admiration. Once again, I find I am inspired by Robinson and the TED phenomenon, only this time Sir Ken is an indirect participant.

TED recently began compiling playlists of their talks as selected by people with significant credentials and credibility. Diverse luminaries such as Bono, Bill Gates, Bjork and Geoffrey Canada curate talks which are meaningful to them. The one I’m interested in is a set of ten videos Robinson loves.

I watched the whole thing over the weekend and it was indeed truly fascinating. However, I very much doubt the average web surfer will also devote just over 2 hours to view and absorb all that is on offer. So here, first collectively and then individually, is my take.

Final Thoughts First

Conventional practice does not get much of an endorsement from these talks. Six presentations centre on dynamic work done in developing nations, three of them highlighted weaknesses in the way established western education systems go about the task of teaching, and two of them were borne out of radical technology inspired innovation…outside of schools. This is hardly surprising. After all, Robinson’s first contribution to TED was entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”

There was a far more significant theme that ran through all ten videos however. Great things are accomplished in education when learners are allowed to be the driving force. The sense I had of it was that a quantum leap in learning is achievable when the learners are given greater autonomy and encouraged to be more proactive. It’s not as simple as saying ‘the big people should get out of the way’ but that’s close to the mark.

There is a problem in summarizing these videos though. Their insights are dangerously easy to over simplify. Much of it appears so obvious when you watch them that you could be forgiven for thinking ‘Of course! That’s just common sense. Don’t schools know about all this stuff already?’ But it’s not as easy as that. It has now been a few days since I watched these videos and I’ve thought about them often as I go about my work. I’ve looked about me at my conventional school – my big conventional school – and decided it’s a good case in point for not demonising the traditional, conservative education model which it so accurately represents.

The teaching and learning done here will be all too familiar to many of you. We are administered through a state sanctioned curriculum. There are tests, standards, and reports. There are uniforms, bells, class sizes, leadership structures, subject departments, rows of desks and discipline policies. Overseeing it all, largely unnoticed, is a timetable. It is a classic example of, as one talk suggests, a bureaucratic model that hasn’t really changed in over 100 years. It is easy to criticise as out dated and, as one talk put it, obsolete.

On reflection though, I’ve decided that to do so is unfair. To paint a picture of this and other conventional schools the world over as factories that treat children as so much product on an assembly line is to exaggerate the reality. This is because the overwhelming majority of students who attend such schools get a great deal out of them. Furthermore, the vast majority of staff in such schools like working with people and love teaching and learning. There is creativity in these schools and an important difference is being made to peoples lives.

I take the point though that this is not always the case for everyone and results can be mixed. Which takes me to the nub of the matter. Conventional schools place an enormous importance on social cohesion. Their bureaucratic nature may be controlling but it is also a stabilising influence. They have a vested interest in the status quo and it’s hard to shift away from that. By contrast, I think these videos, showing wonderful advances in education, suggest the most inventive, dynamic, experimental, free-thinking and creative people are working in environments where there is nothing to lose.

Established education systems and the schools they administer do have something to lose by scrapping old, conventional methods in favour of radical and untested new ones. Who can blame them? It’s not that they aren’t open to the ideas. They just don’t want to risk getting it wrong and would prefer someone else tried it first to be sure.

So with that in mind here’s a summary of Robinson’s top ten. All of them are full of excellent insight and have implications for making all schools better. Just how that gets done in practice though is a little tricky and may take a while to work out. I encourage you all to look at these talks and consider what they have to offer.

http://www.ted.com/playlists/124/ken_robinson_10_talks_on_educ.html

10: Let’s use video to reinvent education

Salman Khan explains how the Khan Academy came to be. He’s an engaging presenter and there’s a cameo from Bill Gates at the end that I think is significant. My take on the KA phenomenon is that it is a victim of its own success and too easily dismissed by conventional education as an Evil Empire endorsed fad. That’s unfortunate since I believe he’s on to something. His contention that students are more comfortable working at their own pace, reviewing the sections that didn’t sink in and then rapidly improving thereafter rings true to me. The idea of reversing the homework paradigm so that much of the knowledge acquisition is homework and what is normally homework is done in class is particularly interesting. Can’t bring myself to get enthusiastic about the gamification he discusses with Gates though.

9: Education innovation in the slums

Once Charles Leadbeater gets going, he inadvertently encapsulates the theme I described above. You could look at Finland for a peek at the future of schools … or you could go to the slums of Rio. If you want to see a place where education is a matter of life or death, you wont find it in Helsinki.

8: “To this day” … for the bullied and the beautiful

Shane Koyczan gives some biographical context to a poem he then recites. All I can say is that you should watch this. Twice.

7: Teaching one child at a time

India, the second most populous country in the world, is an odd place to micro manage education but that’s Shuka Bose’s story. She can tell it better than me but I’ll make two points about her talk. Firstly, she nails a fact of life “When you talk Global, you are talking English.” Secondly, she’s an educational outsider, having come from a previous career in commerce, who ignored the insiders that said it couldn’t be done.

6: Teaching Arts and Sciences together

Mae Jemison, astronaut, doctor, dancer, makes a good point in a 2002 presentation that sadly shows its age (back in the day when power points where new and interesting). Her central premise is extremely important; that our fixation on putting learning into categories and specialised fields of study is limiting. My only real issue with the talk is that she uses herself as an example of multidiscipline cross-pollination. I think she’s just too good for most of us to relate to.

5: A girl who demanded school

The bio calls Kakenya Ntalya ‘fearless’ and I’m inclined to agree. This remarkable young Massai woman’s story highlights how schools were once the best protection of basic human rights in much of the developed world. While many of the talks inadvertently undermine the place of school in society, this one showed why we need them.

4: The El Sistema music revolution

What a paradox music is. So liberating, so creative, yet demanding rigorous discipline, coordination and structure. For its students El Sistema may or may not lead to a career but it will offer an escape from poverty and oppression. If the difference I make to the world measures as a small fraction compared to Jose Antonio Abreu’s achievements than I will be a very very happy man.

3: Build a School in the cloud

Sugata Mitra’s presentation was probably my favourite of the ten. The ultimate example in letting people “get on with it” when it comes to learning. I’m not completely all in with the concept of a school in the cloud but it warms my heart to see proof that all a young curious and motivated mind needs to achieve great things is a scrap of opportunity.

2: Turning Trash into tools for learning

No need to say much. Just watch it. Arvind Gupta is Awesome.

1: What do Babies Think?

For me, this was a case of preaching to the converted. One of the Linguistics Units I teach is all about language acquisition in newborns so Alison Gopnik’s contention that babies are super computers in nappies was one I already considered to be fact. Robinson’s top choice has significant implications for education. If we are serious about developing minds, we could invest a bit more in pre K or early childhood learning and, while we’re about it, let the kids get on with the job and stop holding them to standards that are relevant to us and not them. Something I’ve mentioned before and believe in passionately also.