Why all teachers should be hero teachers

In an AITSL symposium in March 2013, I was described as a “hero teacher” by Valerie Hannon and that it was a bad thing. Hannon meant no offence but emphasised that I was a hero teacher because I took the role of change agent in my school, which to her required excessive working hours, sacrificing hours of my life to my job.

This led to a blog post from Bianca Hewes on driving, implementing and sustaining change in the education system. I admire Bianca because she is a hero teacher, a highly effective teacher devoted to her students, and we need more teachers like her. In this blog post I want to throw in my two cents and respond to two issues raised in Bianca’s post: (1) Teacher passion and subsequent workload; and (2) Sustaining change for 21st century learning.

(1)    Teacher passion and subsequent workload

Valerie Hannon is right to say that I have a huge dedication to my school and students. She is also right to say I work long hours. I say “long” hours rather than “excessive” hours on purpose. “Excessive” is relative to a teacher’s life circumstances. I don’t have children yet and I have a very supportive partner so I can do the amount of dedication that some people might see as excessive. I don’t see it as excessive. I am not on the verge of a mental breakdown. I am not on the verge on burnout.

For me, teaching is not “work”.  Like many other teachers I have a great passion for teaching and live and breathe it. I don’t see how this amount of dedication is any different to Justin Bieber working 16 hour days to be a successful musician. I used to play classical piano as a child. I used to practise piano before school and after school, in addition to many other hours spent on composition and musicianship. No one called me a hero pianist for it. Just like no one calls Justin Bieber a hero performer. All musicians just do it. If you want to be a successful musician, you have to live and breathe music. A musician isn’t what you do, it’s who you are. For me teaching is no different. I don’t see myself as a hero because I see what I do as what I should be doing to be a successful teacher. I don’t impose this on other teachers who contribute to the teaching profession in their own way. But I don’t want to slow down either because other people view what I do as “excessive”.

(2)    Sustaining change for 21st century learning

As a teacher, unless you have been living under a rock, you know there has been a push for change for “21st century learning”, and rightly so. However the focus has been on WHY we need to change for way too long. The focus should be on sustaining change. Bianca is right in saying that the lone nut has been dancing way too long and no one is following. Bianca is right to say that is unfair that a small number of teachers keep shouldering the burden of change. The question here is why people are NOT dancing with the lone nut.

IMHO we need the teaching profession to be made up of hero teachers. I don’t mean Justin Bieber teachers who work 24/7 and will burn out in 3 years. I mean teachers who constantly evaluate their practice; teachers who collect data on how effective they are teaching and how effective their students learning; teachers who constantly seek ways to improve their practice; and teachers who reach out to the global profession of teachers to share best practice and support others. Hero teachers are never happy with what they currently have. A particular way of implementing project based learning can always improve. Current teaching and learning programs can always improve. Assessments can always improve. Hero teachers don’t see room for improvement; they make it their priority to improve it.

In the 21st century we need to educate students to become job creators and entrepreneurs. It is not good enough for teachers to ignore the transforming impacts of technology. It is not good enough for teachers not to seek out data that evaluates their teaching practice. It is not good enough for teachers not to be dancing with with the lone nut. 

The challenges of PBL in a traditional school structure

I’ve been trialling project based learning for about a year. Last year I was lucky enough to have a year 7 class for 14 hours a week for 5 different subjects so I was able to easily design and implement cross-curriculuar units of work that were framed  by project based learning. This year I’m back to traditional high school teaching where I see kids for 60 minutes at a time. I had to change my game plan for project based learning. What I have found most challenging is balancing the students’ passion for learning with ‘getting through the syllabus’.

I’ve just finished a unit called ‘Sharks: Friends or Foes’, which is basically a unit on ecosystems and food webs. I modified the unit with a PBL framework. Instead of just looking at food web diagrams in a textbook or playing with interactive food webs online, students acted as scientists and produced a product for a shark scientists conference to convince the community whether sharks are our friends or foes in the midst of all the media attention on shark attacks.

The project was done throughout the unit in different stages and students also had to learn about population sampling techniques, food webs and how energy flows through ecosystems. During the unit they also had a real shark scientist talk to them.

From the results in the students’ pre-tests and post tests, all students made huge progress in their understanding of ecological relationships. On average students improved over 40% between their pre-test scores and their post-test scores.

In comparison to last year, the students’ teamwork skills and self-regulation skills have massively improved. My main challenge this year is time. PBL takes time. A lot more time than traditional teaching. The unit that ‘Sharks: Friends or Foes’ is based on is supposed to take 5 weeks maximum, but my modified PBL unit took 8 ½ weeks. There were times that I was feeling pressured to rush my students to make sure I don’t fall behind and so that I can get through the syllabus in time. Last year, I saw my students for large blocks of time (5 hours straight twice a week) and they can use these chunks of time to work on their movies, posters and other products for their projects. This year I see them for 3 separate hours a week and this lack of continuity makes the product creation process a lot more challenging.

But does it have to be this way?

This term I realised that I wished high schools did not to have separate subjects. I wish schools didn’t require students to walk in and out of classrooms like they are on a conveyor belt.

I wish every unit was cross-curricular so that subject experts can work together as a team and students can have more time to develop their passions for learning and be knowledge creators rather than just consumers. If you need 4 hours straight to work on a science/maths/geography project then you should be able to do it without being prevented by a timetable structure. Is there a reason why we need to have separate subjects? What is the reason for timetables?

I don’t have the answer or solutions to these questions, but I hope education is moving towards this direction. In the meantime I’m going to take small steps. I’ll continue with PBL with my year 8s and have already approached another faculty at my school to design and implement a cross-curricular PBL unit.

Leading learning design with SOLO

A photo of resources for designing learning for new syllabus

I led my science faculty in using structured observed learning outcomes (SOLO) to design learning for the new NSW science syllabus over the past two days. Like all other NSW schools, we are spending this year preparing for the implementation of new syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum. As a faculty we felt that this was a great opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of our current teaching and learning practices. We are using the new syllabus as a driver of change in teaching and learning.

We decided to use SOLO as the framework to design learning for the new syllabus. Why did we choose SOLO? One of the main reasons is that the Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA) uses SOLO to assess students’ understanding. ESSA is a state-wide science assessment that is completed by all Year 8 students from NSW government schools. An analysis of the trend data shows we needed to work on moving students from being able to recall scientific information to making relationships with this information and then applying this information to real world situations. Another reason why we chose to use SOLO is because it makes learning visible to students and teachers when it is accompanied by learning intentions and success criteria. Learning intentions and success criteria help students focus on the purpose of learning activities rather than just merely completing work. They also help enhance students’ self regulation.

So the two days played out like this:

(1)    Getting everyone on the same page

We started the two days by analysing where our students currently are and where we want to move our students in their learning and achievements. Why SOLO was explored. We used a KWHLAQ table to do this.

 (2)    Drawing out main concepts from the syllabus

We decided to program a unit on human health and diseases first. We familiarised ourselves with the relevant sections of the syllabus and brainstormed all the concepts, ideas and facts that students needed to understand. Individually we wrote each concept, idea and fact onto post-it notes and stuck them on the whiteboard. As a team we sorted the post-it notes into logical categories.

 (3)    Classifying into SOLO categories

We then classified each concept, idea and fact into SOLO categories. We decided to have 3 SOLO categories:

  • Level 1 – unistructural and multistructural
  • Level 2 – relational
  • Level 3 – extended abstract


 (4)    Assigning SOLO verbs

We assigned SOLO verbs for each concept, idea and fact.

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Extended abstract
Follow a simple procedure
Compare and contrast
Explain causes
Form an analogy

 (5)    Creating learning intentions and success criteria

We created learning intentions and success criteria based on the verbs for each category.

 (6)    Teaching and learning activities

We split up into three teams to design teaching and learning activities that will allow students to meet the success criteria.

We also designed an assessment task gives students an authentic context to learn this unit.

What next?

We are still in the progress of completing the unit and I will share it once it is completed. Meanwhile some of our next steps will also include

  • using SOLO for feedback and feedforward
  • working with our school’s PDHPE faculty to see whether we can make this into a cross-curricular unit and assessment

It will be great to get some feedback on how we are going so far in using SOLO to design learning.

Can you see the thousands of dollars?

My year 7 has had laptops now for a few weeks. The class received 12 laptops, which is a costly investment. A colleague once wisely said if that much money was spent you should be able to walk into a classroom/school and notice a difference. You should be able to visibly see that investment’s impact on student learning. So I asked myself exactly that question – Is the learning different in my classroom now? Is the learning better in my classroom now?

I’d like to say yes, and here’s my evidence:
-Students now use their laptops in small groups to demonstrate their understanding, often with higher order thinking skills. Today we explored the properties of magnets. Instead of doing the prac activity from the textbook and writing a prac report, students made a photo story to explain to other year 7s the magnetic properties they have discovered. This took 2 hours. Minimal editing was involved as I wanted the students to focus on the explanation of science, not on fancy video transitions.

-Laptops are used to differentiate learning. Year 7s have been learning about area of composite shapes and expressing area and perimeter through algebraic expressions. Students had to self assess whether they needed more practice in composite shapes or were ready to move onto algebra. Students who selected to refine their skills in composite shapes worked on a self-marking quiz on the laptops while the rest had small group instruction on algebra.

These are just 2 activities where laptops have enhanced learning. When you walk into my classroom, you can see, hear and feel those thousands of dollars making an impact.

Are your thousands of dollars of investments visibly making a difference?



Saying goodbye to the computer room

On Friday I said goodbye to the computer room. The computer room that I have been hogging for at least 4 hours a week since the start of the year. I have spent so much effort making sure I made books as advanced as possible for that computer room so that my Year 7 integrated curriculum class can use it. I felt guilty every time I did that. My students needed to use it, but I also felt as though I was removing a shared resource from other students and teachers. Having taught in a 1:1 learning environment for the past 3 years, teaching only Year 7s this year, where they were not entitled to their own laptops as part of the Digital Education Revolution, really killed me. I was so used to designing learning using collaborative spaces like Edmodo that it felt like all that was taken away from me in the first two terms this year.

However on Friday August 3, my Year 7s received a class set of laptops as part of our school’s middle years strategy and our connected learning strategy. Year 7s received 12 Lenovo Thinkpads, which makes the official laptop to student ratio in my class 1:2.5. The real ratio is 1:2 as some students bring their own devices.

For some people I have talked to, they found it strange that I’m so excited about getting 12 laptops when a computer room offers 20 computers. I would rather have 12 laptops in the classroom than 20 desktop computers that are bolted in a room because:

  • For my Year 7 integrated curriculum class, we used computers mainly for project based learning. So far we have made infographics, science videos and built Parthenons in Minecraft just to name a few. For these projects, students are required to do a mixture of activities that require technology and activities do not require technology. A lot of the times, some students are on computers and other students are working in another area as they are discussing their project or that part of their project does not require a computer. My students will choose the tools that best fit their learning needs at a particular time. Laptops in the classroom do this so much better than computer rooms.

  • Computer rooms are often restrictive learning spaces. They are often built where the only thing you can do is go on computers for the entire lesson. We have 4 computer rooms at the school and I only ever booked one computer room. That’s because this particular room allowed students to spill out into an adjacent area with couches where they can have discussions about their learning rather than being squashed in front of a computer for hours at a time.

  • Having laptops in the classroom allows more flexibility in learning design. Laptops allow the learning to drive the need for technology, not the other way around. When laptops are in the classroom you can use them for lengthy periods of time or in short bursts, depending on the learning need. When computers are fixed in computer rooms, you need to make sure that the whole lesson requires the use of computers so that you’re not wasting the computer room as a resource. You don’t want to book into a computer room if the learning only requires students to be using computers for 15 minutes out of a 60 minute lesson.
  • Laptops in the classroom allows anytime, anywhere learning. If there is a need, my Year 7s can jump on a laptop to go online, to watch an animation that explains a concept, etc. My Year 7s can take their laptops anywhere in the school. They can use it to connect their data loggers to measure features of the environment and they can enter data into a spreadsheet when we are using an outdoor space. If they need to go to a quiet space to record audio, they can take their laptops to that quiet space rather than trying to do so in a computer room with 29 other students. Laptops not only allow learning to drive the need for technology, but it also allows learning to drive the need for a particular style of learning space.

Finally I really hate the concept of computer rooms. To me it’s like going into a calculator room to use a calculator, or a pen room to use a pen. Technology is part of our daily lives now that we shouldn’t have to move to a specialised space to use it. Unless you are doing some hard core 3D animation that requires a high end computer, there should be no need to move to a computer room.

So on Friday my Year 7s and I waved goodbye to the computer room. I have been waiting for that moment for the whole year.

Working, sharing & collaborating as 21C teachers

When we talk about student learning in the 21st century, we often talk about learning (and sharing that learning) anytime, anywhere. Social media and online collaborative spaces have allowed all of us to connect and collaborate 24/7 on our desktop computers, laptops and mobile devices. This shouldn’t just be student learning. It should also be how teachers work.

When I stepped into the role of Head Teacher Science two years ago, I wanted to initiate a structure and process to allow my faculty to collaborate more effectively. One of these ways is to be able to collaborate anytime, anywhere. I wanted to start with the way we accessed and modified our teaching and learning programs. Instead of having these programs trapped on the school network, this year our faculty uploaded them on a wiki via Wikispaces (I was inspired by how Ben Jones, benpaddlejones, set up an online space for the Integrated Curriculum team through a wiki). The obvious advantage is the anywhere anytime access. We can now access our programs on our mobile phones when we’re waiting for a bus if we wanted to. Having the programs on a wiki also allows resources such as worksheets and online videos to be linked in the online document. Instead teachers trying to find a worksheet in a folder in the staffroom, teachers can now click on the worksheet name in Wikispaces, download the worksheet as a Microsoft Word document and modify it to suit their class’ needs. The main benefit of this has been collaboration. Teachers who are leading programs for a particular year group gather the feedback from other teachers and change the program as we teach it. This has now transformed our programs from a relatively static document to a living document that constantly revises itself.

a screenshot of our faculty's wiki

We have a resources page on our faculty wiki where teachers upload websites, videos, worksheets and other resources to share with the faculty. Previously, teachers would photocopy the resource and place it on everyone’s desks. Sadly the worksheet sometimes get lost or filed incorrectly. If you wanted to modify it, you’d have to ask for the electronic version to be emailed to you. Even if the resource was emailed originally, the email can easily become lost in a mass of other emails. We are finding that uploading resources onto a wiki helps keep everything in one place. Sharing has definitely become easier. When things become easier, it gets done more often. 🙂

We also communicate via the wiki. A lot of our intra-faculty communication and faculty organisation are now done through the wiki rather than email. Not only has this decreased our need to constantly delete emails to keep our email storage space in check, but it has kept messages more organised because they are stored in one space. This has also reduced the need to trawl through emails to find, for example, an important message sent two weeks ago.

So this is our faculty’s journey so far in using an online collaborative space to enhance how our processes. My next goal for the faculty will be to use the discussion function to further enhance communication and collaboration.

Project based learning – a continuing journey

I have been embarking on a journey this year that is transforming my teaching practice. I have always liked to experiment with different teaching and learning strategies, but they’ve always had constraints that were beyond my immediate control, which included running them within one hour periods and within one subject area (when I knew it had so much potential for cross curricular opportunities)

Now that I’m teaching a year 7 class in English, maths, science, geography and history, I have more opportunities to try things like project based learning. I see my year 7 class the whole day on Mondays and Fridays and they’re our “project days”. That just means on Mondays and Fridays we have at least two to three hours where students work in teams on projects. These projects span from one week to a few months. They all involve students working in teams,, determining their project goals, working out a timeline to achieve those goals and producing a product that they think best demonstrates their learning. The process of getting to the end product is just as important as the end product itself. the process of the project is adapted from the design process.

design process

To build student capacity to undertake such activities, we started with relatively small projects that were heavily scaffolded. These projects were completed within a few hours over a couple of days so that students can get used to working in a team and practise self-regulatory behaviours. Students then moved onto a project that required a couple of weeks to complete and involved them designing a question about the people of the school, creating a survey to answer the question and then creating a more complex infographic than the previous project. Some students chose to draw graphs on a poster, while others decided to make a video.

In each project, students completed an ‘evaluation of my learning’ activity, which involve students reflecting on:

  • whether they have achieved their goals and why (most students are quite honest with this question, often citing the completion of some tasks were held back because they were distracted for some period of time)
  • how they knew they’ve done a good job
  • how they can improve on their next project (we still need to work on this more as many students still say “work faster”)

Students then review each other’s work and give feedback to each other. We then upload the learning products onto our class blog, Too School for Cool, so that a global audience can comment on the students’ work.

The project the year 7s are doing now is the 60 second science video challenge, which is their first long term project. The project involves students working in teams to create a one-minute video to explain a science concept. The project is divided into four phases: research, pre-production, production and post production. Most year 7 teams have completed their research, a draft script and a draft storyboard for their video. We have also learnt some of the easier script/screenplay conventions and also camera angles for the storyboard.

So these projects with year 7s have been working well so far. When I surveyed the class, the majority of students said they enjoyed doing the projects, learnt a lot from doing them and would like to continue doing projects in the following term.

For me personally, it is a continuing learning journey. I have experimented with similar project based learning activities last year, mainly with games based learning. However, this is the first time where I have been able to implement project based learning continuously for a much longer time. I think it does make learning more meaningful for students and allows them to create products that demonstrate their understanding, that shows me much more on what my students can do and need to improve on in comparison to traditional lessons that lead up to a topic test. Lessons also place a lot of emphasis on the process of learning, which is often lacking in more traditional-styled lessons.

However there are some challenges that I am exploring and implementing strategies for, such as:

  • Continuing to build some students’ abilities to negotiate in teams (some teams often break up as they can’t agree on minor details like whether to do a presentation or a video and we had to play some games and do role plays to show the importance of communication in team work)
  • Some students needing much more help in self regulation than others
  • Students being up to different parts of their project – This sounds relatively minor but it’s the biggest challenge I face at the moment. For example, in the last few weeks of term 1, some teams were still researching, other teams were writing their scripts and about three teams were ready to do their storyboards. It was difficult to determine when I should stop the whole class and have a quick session on how to draw storyboards because three teams were up to it or teach it to each cluster of teams when they were ready to do the storyboards. One of the biggest challenges are towards the end of projects when a few teams finish and some teams haven’t. This isn’t like some kids finishing a worksheet a few minutes before the others. Since these are projects spanning weeks, some teams might finish a few hours or a few days before others

Overall I find project based learning requires a lot more effort to design learning experiences for than the more traditional lessons, but projects provide more intellectual rigour and allow students to enjoy learning rather than seeing it as ‘school work’.

I’m more than happy to continue this journey and I don’t see myself turning back.

21st century learning – what do you think it is?

I recently attended an education forum where the main focus was on the role of technology in 21st century learning and education. The typical 21st century skills were shown. Personally I am not a big fan of 21st century skills because I don’t think these skills are unique to this century. To be able to collaborate, innovate, communicate, etc, have always been important skills, even back in the 12th century. 21st century learning is certainly not about interactive whiteboards and learning management systems. One of the speakers at the forum showed two photos of teaching that really got the room thinking. What exactly is the difference between the photo on the top and the photo on the bottom?

teacher teaching from a blackboardteacher teaching from IWB

While technology certainly plays a large role in education, I think for effective learning to occur in the 21st century and beyond relies on how teachers, educators and society perceive how technology is shaping knowledge and content.

Our current education and schooling system is built upon the premise that content is  scarce. When mass education started, content was difficult to access. Content was recorded in books that were expensive and only a limited number of these books were printed. Only a small number of people had access to this content and this is why children had to be crammed into a classroom to learn this content from someone who knows it. You had to memorise content because it is so difficult to find again. You memorise it or copy it so that you have access to it later on.

Now that we’re in the 21st century, do we still need an education and schooling model that is based on content being difficult to access? We now have YouTube, Wikipedia, Khan Academy and various other online resources that makes content available 24 hours a day, regardless whether you are in the city or rural areas or whether you are at home or on the train. Even children in developing countries have access to this. So why are we still making students come to a particular room at a particular time to access content that they can access online anytime anywhere?

Some people will at this point jump to the conclusion that a computer cannot replace a teacher. I agree. Just having access to content doesn’t make you understand that content. What teachers need to do is to develop students’ abilities in identifying what their learning needs are, how to find the resources for these needs and how to decide whether the resources are suitable. Teachers will need to help students clarify their understanding and develop students’ abilities in assessing and evaluating their own progression. In addition, teachers will also need to develop students’ abilities to collaborate with a global community.

And here’s where I think strategies such as the flipped classroom, games based learning and problem based learning come in. They are about learners owning their own learning processes in an environment where knowledge is at their fingertips and the teacher is not the source of all knowledge that just tells learners what they need to know. Unless teachers truly grapple with the concept that knowledge is now widely accessible to anyone and that learning can happen anywhere anytime (often without them being there), it doesn’t matter how much we talk about 21st century learning, how many interactive whiteboards we install or how many laptops are made available to schools, teachers will still transmit knowledge like the 19th century.

Level Up! Using games culture to enhance learning & innovation

Level Up! is a project that involves embedding games elements into everyday classroom practice. The project involves games based learning, gamification and games design. The brochure and poster presented at the Microsoft Asia Pacific Partners in Learning conference are shown below. Click here to access the virtual classroom tour details from the Microsoft Partners in Learning website.

poster presented at the PIL c onference

Maths … it doesn’t have to be every odd question in Ex 2.3

This year I’m teaching an integrated curriculum for Year 7. This means Year 7s are learning English, Maths, Science, Geography and History through cross-KLA concepts.

Last week we had a lesson on scaled drawings and maps, which covered both ratios in Maths and map reading in Geography. The traditional (and perhaps easier) way is for me to show them how to work with ratios and different types of scales is to do a few examples on the board and then the students do a bunch of maths and geography questions. I then tell them whether they’re right or wrong.

But I decided to do it differently. I wanted my students to show their understanding in their own way, not through a set of questions that someone has set for them. It is also my school’s goal to allow students to negotiate their learning, and to prepare them for this I wanted to let them make negotiations on small parts of the task.

The “lesson” lasted for 5 periods. In the first 2 hours we discussed ratios, scales and how they were applied in real life (in maps, scaled models, toys, etc). Then we made “desk maps”, which were scaled drawings of our desks in the classrooms using scales such as 1 cm = 10 cm, with various objects (also drawn to scale) on the desk. This was followed by measuring scaled distances of a street map showing the local area.

The class then broke into teams. Their task was to make an explanation on how to draw a scaled diagram to someone who doesn’t know how to draw scaled diagrams. They had to plan according to these 3 questions:

1. What is my goal for this task?

2. What will my explanation for the scaled diagram be?

3. How will I present my explanation? Why have I chosen to present it in this way?

The planning process involved students spread across the whole classroom. Some students stayed at their regular desks. Others moved to the lab benches for more space. Others used the whiteboard on the other side of the room. It is more chaotic then the regular classroom, but it’s good chaos 🙂

Most students chose to do a video (for some reason my Year 7s love to make videos; I think it’s because they want to use the iPads). Their reason was because it’s easier to understand how to do maths when you can see and hear the explanation. Other groups chose to make posters. Their reasoning was because the posters can be pinned up in the classroom and students can refer to them if they needed to.

The groups then started to make their products. This involved students spreading out even more. Students who made videos went out into the playground or the storeroom next to the classroom to make their recordings. Students who made posters stayed in the classroom.

The last hour of the lesson involved students evaluating their learning process. I emphasised the process of making their product was just as important as the product. Students had to reflect on these questions:

1. What have I learnt this lesson?

2. How do I know I’ve done a good job?

3. Did I know what I had to do during the lesson? If not, how did I find out?

4. Was I able to stay on task? Why or why not?

5. Was I able to complete my task on time? Why or why not?

6. If I did the task again, how will I do an even better job?

I planned for the class to watch the videos and look at the posters after their learning evaluations, but we ran out of time. We’re going to do that next lesson where each group has to come up with a “wow” and “wonder” for each product. The “wow” is something that was done well in the product. The “wonder” is a question raised from the product such as “I wonder if you could show other scales besides 1cm=10cm to show more difficult calculations”. We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s part of one group’s videos.