Why do teachers feel guilty when they look after themselves?

I got shingles last week. Shingles is the disease you get when you’re overworking , stressed and have lowered immunity, which causes the chicken pox virus that has been lying dormant in your nerves to break loose and cause havoc. It’s not pleasant. Look it up if you’re curious.

I guess I have been overworking. While I am on maternity leave, I have been doing a lot of work while also parenting a baby and a three year old. The work was voluntary. I chose to do it. I enjoy working. 5 days a week I would work try to squeeze in what I usually do in a 7 hour work day into 3 hours, while the children napped, plus concurrently making puréed baby food, washing dishes, laundry and all the domestic stuff. No wonder I got shingles.

So for the last week, I haven’t done any work. When the kids napped, I napped or watched TV. But I felt guilty. It’s a special kind of guilt called teacher guilt. It is a feeling many teachers get whenever they are not working and taking time to look after themselves. I’ve been having teacher guilt since I started teaching. If you’re sick you feel guilty for not showing up to class and causing inconvenience to your colleagues. When you’re at home sick, you feel guilty for not checking emails or marking or working on the school plan or something else. You feel guilty in the holidays if you’re not making programs, marking, etc. If you search the hashtag #teacherguilt on Instagram hundreds of photos of teachers saying the feel guilty because they are sick or relaxing on school holidays. I don’t think other professions have this guilt. I haven’t heard of accountants saying they feel guilty whilst on holidays because they aren’t doing tax returns for their clients.

Perhaps teachers can sometimes love their jobs too much and care about others too much that they neglect themselves. So from now on I’m going to make a conscious effort to look after myself more because I’m no use to students or my colleagues if I don’t.

(I still have shingles so today I went out for coffee instead of working while the baby napped.)

Asking the right questions

effective questioning sketchnote

I presented at the 2017 NSW Secondary Deputy Principals Association Conference this week on embedding effective questioning into assessment for learning. According to research, teachers ask 400 questions a day, wait under 1 second for a reply from students and most of these questions are lower order questions that require students to recall facts. The research also shows that increasing the number of higher order questions leads to increases in on-task behaviour, better responses from students and more speculative thinking from students.

There are other reasons why teachers ask question, like asking a question to wake up the student daydreaming at the back of the class, or asking students to repeat instructions to an activity to make sure they know what to do. These are fine, as long as teachers know the reasons for those questions (and these types of questions do not dominate the majority of class time).


Strategic questioning is key to assessment for learning. While questioning is essential for students in all grade levels, teachers can take the opportunity of new syllabuses and school based assessment requirements for the HSC to re-think how they design and implement assessment for learning in Stage 6. However, questioning is often viewed as an intuitive skill, something that teachers “just do”. At a time when many teachers are creating new units of work and resources for the new Stage 6 syllabuses, it may be a good opportunity to look at strategic questioning and embed some quality questions and questioning techniques.

What do good questions look like?

For assessment for learning, there are two main reasons why teachers ask questions:

  1. To gather evidence for learning to inform the next step in teaching
  2. To make students think

For these questions to be effective, it depends on how the question itself is designed, how the question is asked, and how response collected and analysed, to inform the next step in teaching and learning. Here are some strategies:

Hinge questions

Hinge questions are often multiple choice questions (they don’t have to be). They are asked by the teacher to the class towards the middle of the lesson for the teacher to decide whether the class has understood the critical concepts of the lesson to move on. Hinge questions have four essential components:

  1. The question is based on a critical concept for that lesson that students must understand.
  2. Every student must respond to the question.
  3. The teacher is able to collect every student’s response and interpret the responses in under 30 seconds. (This is why many hinge questions are multiple choice).
  4. Prior to the lesson, the teacher must have decided what the teaching and learning that follows for:
    • the students who have answered correctly
    • the students who have answered incorrectly

Here is an example of a hinge question:

hinge question example

The question assesses students’ understanding of validity, reliability and accuracy in scientific investigations. Many students confuse the 3 concepts. This hinge question can be used for a lesson on investigation design where validity, reliability and accuracy have been explained. Towards the end of this explanation (typically around the middle of the lesson), this question can be asked to all students. Then the teacher can decide on the next steps for students who “get it” and those who don’t. For this question, the correct answer (key) is B. Note that the wrong answers (distractors) in a hinge question must be plausible so students do not answer correctly with the wrong thinking. A really, really good hinge question would have distractors where each distractor reveals a misconception.

Here is another example of a hinge question from Education Scotland.

hinge question maths example

For this question, the key is B. The annotated blue boxes show the wrong thinking behind each distractor.

So how do you implement hinge questions? How do you ask them so that every student responds and you can collect and interpret their responses, and decide the next step in under 30 seconds?

No hands up

The first thing to do is to create a class culture of “No Hands Up”. Students can only put up their hands to ask questions, not to answer questions. Either everyone answers or the teacher selects who answers. When the teacher selects who answers, it must be done in a random way so that everyone is accountable to answering the question. This ensures that it is not just the “Lisa Simpsons” or the daydreaming student who answers the questions. For this to happen, teachers can use mini whiteboards and a randomisation method.

Mini whiteboards can be purchased or cheaply made by laminating pieces of white paper. For hinge questions, students write down their response (A, B, C, D, etc) and holds up their whiteboard for the teacher to see when the teacher says so. This allows the teacher to scan every board (so every student’s response) to see approximately how many students have understood the critical concept. The teacher can then decide what activities they can do while intervening for those students who do not understand. The key to hinge questions is to intervene during the lesson.

As Dylan Wiliam says,

It means that you can find out what’s going wrong with students’ learning … If you don’t have this opportunity, then you’ll have to wait until you grade their work. And then, long after the students have left the classroom.

Alternatively, you can use digital tools like Plickers, Kahoot and Mentimeter. I personally find mini whiteboards the easiest to implement.

While hinge questions require everyone to respond, other questions are more suited to randomly selecting a student to respond. Teachers can use these strategies:

  • Digital random name generator from tools like Classtools and Class Dojo.
  • Writing each student’s name on paddle pop sticks and selecting a stick out of a cup

paddle pop sticks

Higher order questions

Selecting a student at random to answer is more suited to higher order questions. the key is to create and pre-plan higher order questions to take to class to avoid asking too many lower order questions. To plan a sequence of low order to higher order questions, there are numerous strategies. There are heaps of resources for using Bloom’s question stems (just Google it). The strategy I find less popular, but more accessible to students, is the Wiederhold question matrix.

question matrix

Questions are created by combining a column heading with a row heading. Eg. What is …. , Where did … , How might ….

Teachers can put a stimulus in the middle of the table for students to create their own question, like this source I found via Kate Littlejohn for Stage 6 Modern History.

question matrix history

Some sample questions include:

  • What is an ally? What is an opponent?
  • Who decides who is an ally and who is an opponent?
  • What is WWI? Where did it happen?
  • Why did WWI happen?
  • How would you decide who paid the highest price in WWI? What criteria would you use?
  • How might the numbers in each category compare if a world war happened today?

Both hinge questions and creating a sequence of questions are not easy. It is worthwhile for teachers to look at building a bank of hinge questions and higher order questions as they collaboratively create units of work and resources.

You can find more information and resources on questioning in assessment for learning here.

Wait, wait and wait

Lastly, regardless of what questions you are asking (hinge, higher order questions, questions to wake up students), remind yourself to wait. Wait at least 3 seconds for lower order questions and more than 3 seconds for higher order questions; the longer the better.

Potential of hinge questions in flipped learning

As an interesting note, I think hinge questions can be very useful in flipped learning. The hinge questions can be asked at the start of the lesson to assess who has understood the concept from the instructional videos and who hasn’t so the teacher can decide on how the rest of the lesson should run. Hinge questions can also be incorporated into the instructional video at key points so that the video continues in a certain way if students answer correctly and in another way if students answer incorrectly.

Taking personalised and differentiated learning to the next level


I had my second child recently. Being a parent is one of the steepest learning curves. Learning to be a parent of  newborn again has made me reflect on myself as a learner. How do I learn best? I find myself different to many other parents. I don’t like people coming over to visit and “help”. I like to be left alone to try things for myself. The support I find most effective is to be allowed to work it out for myself. If I wanted help I would seek it out myself. I don’t need people to give me hints and advice if I haven’t asked for it. Even as a school student, I would prefer to find the information I need, try it myself first multiple times and then seek help from my teachers after multiple attempts. I hated it when I was forced to listen to the teacher’s ways of doing things step by step.

This got me thinking about personalised and differentiated learning. How can we as teachers design learning experiences to cater to the needs of individual students? A lot of the times personalised and differentiated learning translates to modified learning activities such as assessments, different levels of scaffolding, letting students choose how to present their learning (eg. choosing whether to do a presentation or a poster), allowing students to learn at different paces and creating individual student learning plans. These strategies are necessary and are often very effective but can we push personalised and differentiated learning to another level? Can we allow students to choose HOW they learn?

As teachers, we often force the same way of learning to all of our students, whether it is flipped learning, inquiry learning, traditional teaching, project based learning, etc, etc. In any class there will be some who love whatever strategy the teacher chooses, some who will adapt to any strategy and some who absolute hate the strategy. Also, students can prefer different strategies in different circumstances. Reflecting on my own school experiences, I like to be left to my own devices to work things out in science and maths,  but I preferred very structured, teacher-led instruction in art, English and physical education. Talking to students, they have expressed the same views. Some really like the very structured, teacher-led, sage-on-the-stage teaching style of one teacher and others don’t find they learn that way. So is there a way to differentiate and personalise pedagogy for each student?

The answer is probably no (if we are looking at the current schooling model). It will be impractical for one teacher to design a project based learning experience for some students and something else for the rest. However, if we break down the one-teacher-per-thirty-students model, then maybe it can work. If we got rid of the idea of classes and instead took a whole cohort of students (eg. all of year 10) and they had a teaching team (say 6 teachers), then pedagogy can be personalised and differentiated for groups of students. One teacher can lead project based learning experiences for a group. Another can lead a group who like to learn independently. Another can lead a group who like to learn in small groups. The different options can be tailored to the needs of the cohort of students. Students can choose which teacher they would like their learning to be led by based on the pedagogy the teacher will use. This way, teachers can teach to the strategy they are best at and students can learn in the way they prefer.

I haven’t tried this strategy myself or seen it in action. I’d be interested to find out if there are schools who allow students to choose their teachers based on who they think they learn best from based on their teaching strategies.

Meeting the challenges of teacher professional learning

As someone who has designed and delivered quite a few teacher professional learning (TPL), I have often reflected on the criteria and conditions of professional learning that will enable teachers to change their practice in a sustained way so that it becomes habit that makes an impact on student learning.

TPL sketchnote

What is effective teacher professional development?
Designing effective teacher professional learning for improved student outcomes – research findings from NSW schools
Characteristics of Effective Professional Development: A Checklist

TPL is hard to design and deliver. Teachers can be a challenging audience. And change is hard. TPL is also a large investment, both in monetary terms and time. There’s the cost of the professional learning, travel, accommodation, teacher relief and then there’s the time factor. Teachers are away from their classes, they have to plan relief work and then follow up on these missed classes. Taking all this into consideration, TPL presenters and participants all want professional learning to make an impact on student learning. But how many times have we walked away from TPL, get a few good ideas, never implement them and continue with business as usual?

I have previously blogged about what I personally find to be effective TPL. For me it is essential that the TPL matches the strategy that it is trying to promote (please don’t tell me about active learning by making me sit down the whole day and listen to a series of lectures) and that there is follow-up. It is easy (and inspiring) to do one-hit-wonder TPL but what is being done after that to support teachers in the change process? Teacher professional learning is a process, not an event.

Recently I had the opportunity to design and implement sustained TPL for project based learning with schools that are part of the Connected Communities strategy. Many TPL for project based learning goes for 1 to 2 days where teachers learn the 101 of project based learning and produce a draft project plan for implementation. Then teachers are left to their own devices. There is rarely follow up for teachers to seek advice or receive feedback.

For the Connected Communities TPL on project based learning, we did a two-day, face-to-face conference, where teachers spent two days learning some PBL 101. But we didn’t leave it at that. This is what we are doing to make sure the project based learning PBL has impact on student learning and support teachers in changing their practice:

  • Learning about project based learning through project based learning so teachers experience the pedagogy themselves as learners
  • Teachers left the conference with a project based learning plan they can implement in the following term
  • Teachers are allocated half a term to refine their project based learning plan
  • An online professional learning community established so that teachers can further connect and support each other
  • Ongoing TPL that focus on other enabling conditions of project based learning (formative assessment, student collaboration, teacher questioning and collecting evidence to evaluate the impact of project based learning) – Teachers will access 5 online TPL modules where each module will have a live online meeting via Adobe Connect so that teachers can share their experiences while implementing project based learning and seek advice, feedback and support from each other and course instructors.

The online TPL will run through April to July 2017. I’m looking forward seeing the impact of this type of TPL where teacher learning is seen as a process and not an event.

Why every teacher should look into project based learning

Project based learning (PBL) is often misunderstood. On one side, it is touted as a strategy for “future focused learning” and “21st century learning”. On the other end, there is misconception that PBL involves sending students off to learn by themselves using “online research”. This is unfortunate as the more experience I have in implementing PBL, the more I see it as an overarching structure that combines a multitude of evidence-based teaching practices that ties in with goal 2 of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians:

All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.

Some of the features of successful learners include:

  • the capacity to learn and play an active role in their own learning
  • able to plan activities independently, collaborate, work in teams and communicate ideas
  • on a pathway towards continued success in further education, training or employment, and acquire the skills to make informed learning and employment decisions throughout their lives

In other words, we want our students to become life long learners who are self-regulated and self-directed. PBL is an effective way to teach students how to be self-regulated and self-directed learners, through evidence-based practices.

How does PBL develop self-regulated and self-directed learners?

The key word here is develop. Self-regulated and self-directed learners are made, not born. To be successful at PBL, students must have a level of self regulation and self direction. Many teachers implementing PBL for the first time find that their students have low levels of self regulation and self direction, which can make PBL frustrating for all. The learning design behind any PBL experience needs to have built-in teaching moments that build students’ skills in self regulation and self direction. One of the most useful papers I have found that describes this is Supporting Student Self-Regulated Learning in Problem- and Project-Based Learning. I have drafted a graphic that combines the paper and my own experience to show how teachers can design PBL experiences that scaffold student self regulation and self direction.


To enable students to be successful in PBL, many of the strategies teachers need to use are evidence based. For a while now I have been using the Teaching and Learning Toolkit from Evidence for Learning. The site is a collation of Australian and international research that informs teachers on the impact on a range of teaching and learning strategies. A sort of the strategies show that the top 5 that make the most impact are:

The top 3 strategies, feedback, meta-cognition and self-regulation and collaborative learning are key components of PBL:

  • Feedback – The nature of PBL involves formative assessment, assessment for learning and assessment as learning. Students are constantly drafting and re-drafting their work based on feedback. This requires teachers to build in multiple opportunities for teacher feedback, peer feedback and self feedback. One of the best resources I have found in designing and implementing formative assessment and feedback is Strong Start, Great Teachers, particularly the sections on teacher questioning.
  • Meta-cognition and self-regulation – PBL allows the opportunity for students to monitor their own learning goals and the effectiveness of a range of learning strategies for them as individual learners. Students are regularly required to reflect and evaluate the progress of their projects.
  • Collaboration – PBL requires students to work as a learning community. They need to trust each other and respect each other to have effective self feedback, to work collaboratively as a team and to take risks in their learning. It is essential that teachers build and sustain a positive classroom culture to move their “class” to a community. it is also essential that teachers teach students how to collaborate. Collaboration and cooperation are skills that are learnt; they aren’t just naturally there in students.

A key component of success in PBL is for teachers to teach students how to be effective learners. Most students need high levels of teacher guidance to know how to act on feedback, how to give each other and themselves feedback, how to set goals, how to monitor their progress and how to work productively with others.

While PBL is not a silver bullet to solve all the challenges of education, it ties in many components of evidence based teaching. If teachers embark on PBL as long-term journey, their students will have more opportunities to develop into successful self-regulated, self-directed learners.



How to teach “soft skills” in project based learning


I have done quite a few teacher professional learning workshops on project based learning (PBL). Nearly all of them have involved telling teachers about elements of authentic PBL, how to design a ‘good’ driving question’ and the importance of formative assessment and feedback. I am currently working on another series of professional learning workshops on PBL,  but this time the team is also focusing on the “soft skills” of PBL. These soft skills include collaboration, student self-regulation, creativity, critical thinking, etc. These soft skills are included in the NSW syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum as Learning Across the Curriculum. In this blog post, I’m going to focus on collaboration.

PBL often require students to work in teams. If students are to work in teams successfully, they need to know how to collaborate. One thing I learnt very quickly in my PBL journey is that collaboration doesn’t come automatically for students. Simply putting students in groups and getting them to sit in a circle won’t teach them collaboration. If students don’t know how to collaborate, they will find the PBL experience frustrating and the teacher will find it frustrating. Like reading and writing, collaboration needs to be explicitly taught. But how?

In my PBL journey, I have found teaching students how to establish group norms, how to determine and assign roles to team members, how to backward map from timelines of due dates of tasks, and how to negotiate and compromise, to be crucial in PBL to be a successful learning experience. However, I have found the most important aspect of successful student collaboration is a safe learning environment; an environment where students trust each other, respect each other, support each other and feel comfortable enough with each other to take risks in their learning. What are the strategies to enable this? How can students be assessed and receive regular feedback on these aspects. Just like reading and writing, students need to know how they are going with their collaborative skills and what they need to do next to improve?

How do you teach collaboration in your classroom? How do you teach collaboration in PBL?


STEM in Australia – some teachers’ perspectives of STEM education

Last Sunday I had the privilege of hosting the weekly #aussieED chat on Twitter. The focus was on STEM. I wanted to dig deep into what Australian teachers thought on STEM education.
For those who don’t know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. A focus on STEM isn’t new and has been a focus on-and-off since the 1980s.However in the past 5 years, there has been a large focus on STEM in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as being emphasised in government policies. So for the #aussieED chat I wanted to find out what teachers felt was happening with STEM education in their schools. These are some of the themes:

 1. STEM education has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

Some teachers indicated that their schools have implemented STEM as cross-curricular project based learning experiences and have moved from a few innovators and early adopters trailing STEM programs to whole school approaches. These schools are now supporting other schools who are starting their STEM journeys. A good example of this is the STEM Action Schools project in NSW public schools. It will be interesting to see how different schools and teachers evolve their STEM teaching approaches as they gain more experience and reflect upon them.

2. STEM education needs more than passionate teachers; it needs enabling conditions.

Many teachers agreed that STEM is a way of teaching; a way of teaching that involves the integration of traditional subjects with a real-world context and driven by real-life solutions. This approach is enabled and sustained when structural systems like timetables, flexible learning spaces and a school culture that encourages teachers to take risks with different teaching approaches are in place. Otherwise it can become isolated pockets of excellence in STEM education, accessible to some students only. Some teachers mentioned dedicated time in timetables to work as a team so authentic cross-curricular collaboration can be created and sustained. Other teachers mentioned time to explore practical resources, opportunities to team teach with exemplary STEM teachers and time to reflect, evaluate and improve in their own practice.

3. How can educators and systems ensure promising practices in STEM are scaled and make an impact?

Is STEM an educational fad? Do we even need STEM to be an integrated, cross-curricular approach? Should we focus on teaching science, technology and maths separately but make sure we teach it well? What are the goals of STEM education? Is it just purely to make students “future job ready”? Is it to create scientifically and digitally literate citizens? Does everyone need to learn coding? How do we measure the impact of STEM? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect impact? These were some of the issues raised throughout the #aussieED chat. We didn’t come up with answers as they are highly complex issues that can be highly dependent on context. Personally I think STEM education is vital to the future of students on a personal, societal and economic level. To make STEM education a sustainable practice, that is day-to-day teaching practice, the enabling conditions of quality STEM education needs to be in place. We also need to be clear on the purpose of STEM education for our students. Otherwise it can easily become a fad.

What are your thoughts and experiences of STEM education?