Friday, August 26, 2011

Sometimes school is stupid

Every now and then, we all have “one of those days”. They usually start out bad and go downhill from there.   Mine usually start off without an alarm to wake me. My high-tech radio has an in-built compassion circuit - whenever it senses that I am tired enough to really need a wake-up call, it very kindly refrains from disturbing my slumber until just past the last possible moment. Then it starts going - and so do I.

It’s a quick shower, dress, breakfast,  run out to the car, discover that cars really do need a key to start, run back to the house, find the keys in yesterday’s trousers (who on earth put them there?) and speed to school. This latter practice is frowned upon by the police - one of whom invariably chooses this precise moment to discuss the merits of the demerit system with me. Thereafter, and proceeding precisely one kilometre per hour under the speed limit, I continue to the school car park. There, waiting for me like an accusation, is my vacant parking spot.

The principal, who chooses this precise moment to be wandering past my room, glances pointedly at his watch, fixes his gaze upon me and says … nothing - in a deafeningly loud voice.  Feeling only marginally better than a marathon runner at high altitude, I rush to prepare the items required for the first session. As I do so I hear the familiar sound of children arriving at school.
Needless to say, I am not at my best.

It is at times like these that only the prospect of reincarnation prevents attempts at suicide.

We have all had “one of those days”. We know only too well the effects that everyday setbacks have on our ability to function at our true level. But what of our students? Do they too have bad days? Perhaps if we could see the world through their eyes...

Sometimes school is stupid.

Sometimes school is stupid. Really dumb. I was late for school on Monday - but it wasn’t my fault. The bus was late. It broke down going up a big hill. It started bumping and jerking and making sounds like a dying dinosaur. We had to wait until Old Cranky the driver fixed it. And when we got to school the teacher was crabby at me for being late.
“Try to get here on time tomorrow,” she said. she didn’t smile at me all day just because I was late. But it wasn’t my fault!

Sometimes I think that teachers can’t smile before three o’clock.

And then, after break, we had to tell the time using an old-fashioned clock with hands. I hate clocks like that. First, Miss Dawkins made it say four o’clock.  I know that one, so I put my hand up - but she didn’t pick me. John got it right, then she moved the long hand to the one. I put my hand up and said “One past four”.

Wrong! If the long hand points to the one it really means five - it said five past four. And if it points to the two it means ten minutes past. Why can’t they make clocks that say what they mean? Miss Dawkins put the minute hand on the seven, so I counted by fives (all by myself) and put my hand up again and said “thirty-five minutes past”.  Wrong again! Can you believe that? Miss Dawkins said that I was right, but we don’t say that, we say “twenty-five minutes to four”. Sometimes clocks are stupid too.

After lunch, when we came back into the classroom, Miss Dawkins told me to spit out my fresh piece of chewing gum. Well, I wasn’t going to waste my new gum, so I stuck it under my desk. Miss Dawkins saw me and growled.  I couldn’t believe it! What was I supposed to do? Throw it away? Miss Dawkins thought so.

Sometimes school is stupid.

It was just lucky I had another bit of chewy under my desk left over from last week.

Then, just before home time, I made this really great castle with the construction set. It was fantastic! It had a place for horses to go in places to drop rocks on invaders and places to hide weapons. It even had a flag made out of chewing gum. It was brilliant!

Miss Dawkins didn’t thinks so. She didn’t even look at it. I couldn’t believe it! SHE DIDN’T EVEN LOOK AT IT! She just said, “Very good, but it is time to pack up now”. It had taken me ages to make and I had to pack it up just because some stupid clock didn’t say fifty minutes past two.

Tuesday I was late for school, but it wasn’t my fault. Not really. I had a bit of trouble tying my shoelaces. I can tie them, really I can, but on the laces were like slippery worms and they just wouldn’t stay done up. So I was late for the bus and Mum had to drive me to school. She was crabby at me. When I got to school, the clock said twenty past nine, but I think Miss Dawkins was crabby too, and she didn’t smile at me all day.

Sometimes shoelaces are stupid.

On Wednesday, I made it to school on time! I was wearing my brand new shoes - ones without laces - and Miss Dawkins smiled at me like she meant it. School started and it was “Show and tell”. I stood up and showed my great new shoes. No-one was interested! I couldn’t believe it! John said they were baby’s shoes because they didn’t have laces. Clare said they looked like they belonged to Bigfoot. On the way back to my spot my great new shoes accidentally kicked John and Claire. Miss Dawkins growled at me.
Don’t teachers ever get new shoes?

Next day was Thursday. My two-day-old shoes got me to the bus on time and it didn’t break down and John was waiting for me in the playground and Miss Dawkins smilled at me when she called out our names in the morning.  Igot a clock question right - half past seven. I read a book to Miss Dawkins and I got all the words right. School was going well.  And then it happened.

I was writing a story about a monster and in the story I stabbed the monster with a knife. Miss Dawkins said there was a “k” at the start of “knife”. She said it was a silent letter because we don’t say it.  She said there was another one in “knee” as well. I said it was stupid to have to put a silent letter into a word if no-one ever said it. Miss Dawkins didn’t say anything. She didn’t even say that she like the story.

And then John came up with a dumb story about a cat on a mat. Miss Dawkins said she liked it and she didn’t correct any of his mistakes. Well, only one of them - he spelled “cat” with a “k”. It sounded right, but it wasn’t really.

I think “k” is a stupid letter.

Next day was Friday. Mum lets me buy my lunch every Friday and I always have a pie with lots and lots of sauce. I didn’t get growled at all morning. At lunchtime, I got my pie and rushed outside to eat it - but I didn’t run. And then it happened.

I dropped my pie all over my three-day old pair of shoes. The sauce looked like monster blood and all John could say was it was lucky I didn’t have laces because then my hands would get messy. Miss Dawkins was on yard duty, so I told her what had happened.  She took me to the canteen and bought me a new pie - with her own money! I couldn’t believe it!

Sometimes school is stupid.  And sometimes it’s great!

Sometimes even a teacher will do.

It is an adult characteristic to trivialise the traumas of childhood.  Since we have “real” problems like bank managers, telephone bills, police speed checks and clock-watching principals, we tend to dismiss the dilemmas of childhood as quaint, possibly amusing, but definitely
trivial. But for a young child, many aspects of life are seen from a different perspective. Even if we get carpet burns from walking on our knees we will never again truly see life from their viewpoint. Perhaps we shouldn’t even try - adults who try too hard to be childlike usually only succeed in being childish. But we can recognise when our children need a friend.

Sometimes, even a teacher will do.

The story behind this story.

I wrote the piece above a quarter of a year ago to reflect what, to me, was a personal epiphany...

We’ve all had students like “Wayne”.  He was in my grade two class in my first posting and, at the risk of making the ultimate understatement,  he was hard work.  He came from what today would be called “socially disadvantaged circumstances”.  It is fair to say that “Wayne” did not find much about school enjoyable - it was a foreign place with different rules and skill sets that had no meaning to him.  He struggled to learn using the techniques in common practice at the time.  Being so young, he no doubt associated me with school and rules and frustration ... and perhaps failure.  Our relationship was complicated by the fact that he had an unpleasant medical condition - and it was my insistence that something be done about it that led to several meetings with social workers, school psychologists,  senior staff, doctors and, eventually,  two weeks in hospital.  When his family moved at the end of the year he wasn’t sorry to go.

I myself transferred at the end of the year to another school in the district.  I scanned the class list before school started and there was a familiar name - but as “Wayne” was a common name did not think too much of it.  Then, on day one, “Wayne” came through the door.  His neutral expression became something less as he saw his “new” teacher.  It was then that I first really understood that students are not just learning profiles on legs.

I wrote this article in response to that situation.  It was originally published in “Classroom - the magazine for teachers”, issue 6, 1990.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Maths education – dire or inspire?

You could see the panic in their faces - and then the relief.

They were students in their final year of high school on a visit to campus to explore the possibility of “going to uni” after they finished their compulsory schooling.  I had, perhaps perversely, set up an experiment.  I had told them that two of them would find a red dot under their seat - and if they were one of these people they would come forward and participate in a simple mental mathematics activity. Panic turned to relief as, chair after chair, they stood and did not find a dot. It had been a trick - but one with a purpose.

It may have been cruel - but the momentary discomfort was worth the discussion. I asked them how they felt when they thought they may have to do a simple maths activity in front of their peers.  Who had a nervous uneasy reaction in the pit of their stomach? Almost everyone felt this way (except those girls too cool for school with more product in their hair than even the law of gravity could cope with  - and there a was no way that they would be going up!!!).  We discussed that fact that so many people had that reaction.

We discussed why they thought that way and what they thought mathematics was about.
The conversation quickly distilled to mathematics teaching and text books. Most of the students really do not like mathematics; many do not understand it - even if they can complete the required procedures. Most thought that mathematics was what took place at school,  or when you were shopping or later in life if you worked in an office.  

I was not surprised - for these groups mirrored previous groups;  same experiment, same reaction, same discussion - same finding. In short, most of our students leaving the mandated years of schooling do not like mathematics - especially the way it is taught.  This reaction is also wide-spread when I conduct the same experiment with pre-service teachers.

Why does this continue to be the case?  This is a deceptively simple question. The answers range from teachers teaching out of area (and therefore having both a reduced skill set and limited knowledge base), teaching to the text, the mistaken belief that “old fashioned” teaching produces better test results (assuming that we accept that as a valid indicator) and so forth.  But rather than unpack this I’d rather simply contrast traditional text book based learning with something different.

What might good mathematics teaching look like?

One thing that students consistently mention is the use of multimedia.  I’m not suggesting that we plug our students into the Khan Academy and walk away - far from it in fact.  Another item frequently mentioned is relevance or interest - statements such as “You’ll need this later in life” do not sit well with these students. They want relevance now - and why not? 

So how can we interest students in mathematics? We can start by moving away from a reliance on text books and meaningless exercises. Those who need convincing watch  Dan Meyer’s TED talk.

Why not let the beauty of maths speak for itself? Let your children watch this amazing creation by Etinne Cliquet ("Flottille") and see how many are interested in looking at symmetry then.

Flottille (detail) from Etienne Cliquet on Vimeo.
Vi Hart’s famous hi speed doodling / ranting also make good watching - and could easily prompt school based follow up lessons (which is ironic given Vi’s iconoclastic style).  

What about this amazing clip showing what happens when pendulums of slightly different lengths are released simultaneously?
Or watch Kjartan Poskitt taking his “murderous maths” to the street.  Just look at the faces of the people in the street at he performs his ABC x 7 x11 x 13 trick.  These people are fascinated - by mental mathematics!  

Or visit for videos of children at work in real maths classrooms on real problems - visit the “Hard fun is how we learn best” clip to see primary students playing with factorisation.

I’m not suggesting that maths lessons need to be fun in the arcade game sense - but they should be engaging, stimulating and challenging (ironically, characteristics that are associated with video games). Nor am I suggesting that we replace every lesson with video oddities and novelties. However, the use of  videos such as these can encourage real life exploration of mathematics. They can provide launch pads into “hands on” investigation of mathematics.  In short, they can inspire our math classes.

Those wishing to view more videos that have the potential for use in mathematics classrooms might like to view this post.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Improving numeracy - with the 7C's

There have been many reformers offering ideas for improving numeracy in our schools.  Many of them advocate the use of specific commercial resources or explicit lesson plans – in short they offer recipes for teachers and schools to follow.    The quietly spoken Alistair McIntosh (formerly Associate Professor at the University of Tasmania, Australia) avoided this path – yet identified some key ingredients of successful mathematics teaching.  To create a narrative thread through his suggestions he nominated concepts starting with “C”.
For McIntosh the basic principles for improving numeracy teaching included;
·         Conceptual understanding (rather than simple procedural competence).
·         Connecting new mathematical concepts to known concepts and also to the “real world”.
·         Communicating – students need to be able to describe, explain, justify, convince, hypothesise and prove.
·         Consolidating – ideas need to be revisited, used in practical settings, implanted in games where possible, required skills need to be developed and establish in the mind.  This should not  be confused with rote learning or memorisation tasks.
·         Coordination – teaching is more effective if it is consistent, both within a classroom and within a school – especially at adjacent grades.
·         Community of learners – as society changes so does the relevance of the curriculum. As a result teachers need to be aware of what is relevant, how technological and social advancement make new methods of teaching possible and of course, the needs of the learner need to be considered.  So teachers are learning, not necessarily new numeracy concepts, but how to present and apply them in the real world.
·         Curriculum – McIntosh supports the views expressed in the NCTM Principles and Standards for School Mathematics  - the mathematics curriculum should be well articulated,
                                               focus on important mathematics,
                                               be coherent
                                               and is much more than just a collection of activities.
I’ve taken the liberty of presenting some of the ideas in McIntosh’s brief paper in video form.
This presentation is a condensed version of McIntosh’s ideas.  The full paper can be accessed here.
The strength of McIntosh’s ideas is their simplicity – he has provided a lens through which we can view our programs.  By considering and including these aspects in our practice we can make progress towards improving numeracy in our schools.  

Monday, August 8, 2011

Validate - it's great!

It is no secret that a great deal is expected of schools. Our curriculum documents overflow with worthy content - and even some content that is perhaps less worthy.  Even if the teaching of academic skills and knowledge were all that was expected of schools the task of the teacher would be daunting. However, all educators know that much more is expected of teachers than “merely” teaching content matter.  Teachers are also required to nurture their students in areas other than the strictly academic.  

There is an almost universal belief that self-esteem and success at school are linked. Surprisingly, there is actually some debate about this - the impact of high self esteem on school success is, statistically speaking, only weakly positively correlated. (Those wishing to peruse the evidence for such a claim may like to follow this link.)    However, even if this is true and self esteem is not strongly related to academic success, the question should be asked - does it need to be? Isn’t having students feel good about themselves a valid end in itself - rather than simply a by-product of “achievement”?

There are many that think so.

For the sake of avoiding repetition of previous blog posts I will refrain from discussing the vexing issue of schools actively contributing to low student self esteem by an excessive emphasis on test scores, the requirement for standardised rates of progress, the “everyone must learn the same material” issue - regardless of student interest, and the whole “school as factory” model of education in general.

Fortunately, making students feel good about themselves isn’t always hard. Simply smiling at a student, knowing them and treating them as an individual rather than a learning profile may be all that is required.  Effective teachings strategies provided by the US based National Drop Out Prevention organisation to enhance student self esteem include;
·         knowing the students as individuals
·         greet students by name and useing it often
·         individualise instruction as much as possible
·         view mistakes as learning experiences
·         individualise instruction
·         avoid using grades to separate or categorise students
·         group heterogeneously and
·         create a sense of group and cohesiveness amongst the class
(Those interested in reading further for more recommendations and discussion should click here.)
In other words - having an interest in students as individuals and providing an instructional program based upon their needs is likely to lead to enhanced results - and if it doesn’t actively increase academic results directly it is likely to make the process more enjoyable for all concerned.  Even the sceptics have been unable to provide evidence that making students feel good about themselves decreases achievement.
To remind ourselves just how important it is to have a healthy sense of self esteem I’d recommend watching this video - “Validate”.  It  is a coffee-break length video of the “feel good” genre - and it doesn’t mention schools at all.  However, it is well worth watching - and considering the impact of our actions and comments beyond the realms of academic learning.  The impact of a meaningful compliment or observation can have a significant impact on our students … and our colleagues.

(Those wishing to explore the impact of emotional considerations on student performance are invited to click here to view an earlier blog dealing with Alfie Kohn’s “Feel - Bad Education”.  
Those wishing to explore the impact of mental attitude on student performance are invited to click here to view an earlier blog dealing with Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset”.)

If you enjoyed this video you might enjoy one with a similar "feel good" theme here.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The learning tour of PISA

The word of education is awash with data – particularly testing results. While I personally have significant reservations about both the use and usefulness of much of this data, due to a combination of   the harm it can do to students, teachers, parents and schools as well as the often unsound assumptions upon which it is based, it has to be acknowledged that not everyone shares my views.  However, I will  put my concerns aside  for the moment and share this video explaining the biggest number cruncher of them all – the PISA testing program.  It is done in the style of the poplar RSA Animates series  and surprisingly, despite being essentially an advertisement for PISA,  it is entertaining ... and also contains some thought producing insights – hence the posting here.

Most educators are familiar with the Programme for International Student Assessment – otherwise known as PISA.  Some may not be aware that PISA was actually conceived and is managed by the OECD – the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.  It often passes unnoticed that this body is not primarily concerned with education.   As well as providing a vehicle by which the school systems of  participating countries can be ranked,  PISA  has made some observations based upon educational practices and results from around the world.
Many of these are now entrenched in the educational psyche – for example,  girls tend to outperform boys all over the world in literacy while the reverse is true for mathematics.   An equally “obvious” fact, but one which  is significant to have confirmed at this level, is that home background is a major influence on student success.  It is nice to have this confirmed by PISA (given the economic slant of the OECD) – perhaps people will bear this in mind when evaluating school performance.   
There are other “obvious” findings that it is pleasing to see confirmed – that students with fewer books at home are less likely to read.  An associated fact presented in the video is that children from “advantaged” families hear 30 000 000 more words over the course of their school years than students from “less advantaged families” ; you read correctly - 30 million.  The impact of this upon literacy performance need not be expanded upon here.   The fact that a conservative organisation like the OECD confirms the impact of home background on student success is significant – and well worth remembering during the next phase of “teacher bashing”.
Some other areas mentioned in the video include;
·         Early tracking (aka “streaming”) of students is NOT associated with higher PISA scores.
·         Having students repeat grades is NOT associated with higher PISA scores.
·         The “best” teachers tend to gravitate towards the “better schools” – meaning those students who need educational support the least get the best educators (a serious omission here for me was the absence of a definition of what constituted the “best” teachers – but, definitions aside, this is a significant statement).
·         All students, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds CAN perform at high levels when given the opportunity.

Perhaps the most interesting observation mined from the PISA data set  was this observation – that students from “less advantaged areas” that attended schools situated in “more advantaged areas” tended to do as well as their classmates.   Let’s unpack this a little – in this video PISA confirm that home background impacts significantly on student learning...but then indicate that students from “less advantaged” areas  can outperform their neighbours and match their  more advantaged classmates by attending school in more “advantaged” areas.   If this is true, and given the statistical rigour of PISA I’d suggest that, numerically at least ,this is a valid finding, then schools need to examine how this is possible.  The implication is that schools may be doing things that counter unhelpful social issues.  

It is tempting to assume that the schools in “advantaged areas” are doing things that do not occur in “less advantaged areas”.  If this is true then the solution is obvious – mimic the practices of advantaged schools.  However, this is simplistic – there are high performing teachers and outstanding educational practices in “less advantaged” areas which do not produce the same test performance as their more wealthy equivalents.  

Perhaps we should consider some of the non-tangibles of teaching and education – things that PISA can’t measure. Why are these students attending schools “out of area”?  Does this display some perception and ambition on the part of the parents? Is this transmitted to their children? Is this reflected in the work habits of the young people concerned?  So... following this train of thought,  do  the statistical findings of PISA support the wide spread “truism”  that family values and attitudes towards education are key variables  determining success at school?  Is achievement more to do with attitudes than with ability?

The video runs for about 12 minutes – but the contemplation of the issues it raises will last much longer.

(Anyone interested in  pursuing the notion that achievement is more to do with attitude than ability might like to visit my July 4th post “The more I practice the luckier I get. Mindset – Carol Dweck”.  Either go to the July archive folder or click here.