Hold it right there. We learn about black holes in Year 10, not in Year 8

This term my Year 8 class has been running Science News. Science News is where each student in the class takes turns in presenting a science news item that they have found interesting. They have to showcase  the science news item in a two minute presentation. The purpose of Science News is to expose students to the latest discoveries in science. I wanted them to know that science is everywhere.

However, Science News has also taught me new things and not just scientific things. One Science News item challenged how I was designing my learning for my students and how our education system designs learning for our students. Daniel talked about new discoveries on black holes. You can read Daniel’s speech to the class here. Right after Daniel finished his speech, half of the class’ hands shot up with questions.

“What exactly are black holes?”

“What happens when you go into a black hole?”

“I heard that time slows down when go inside a black hole. Is that true?”

“If we can’t see a black hole. How do we know it is there?”

“What is a light year?”

I was really happy that my students were so enthusiastic about learning more on black holes. So what did I do? I spent about 5 minutes skimming through the basics of gravity, dark matter and the speed of light and then I said, “OK. We actually learn about this stuff in Year 10. We need to stop now and continue learning about the ozone layer.”

While ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere is very important and Year 8s were also interested in ozone, I felt really guilty in almost extinguishing my students’ curiosity in black holes because the syllabus said that they should learn it in Year 10 and right now they should be learning about the ozone layer. I’m sure many teachers have faced this kind of situation before but it really got me thinking on how the current education system does so much to restrict the learning of our students.

Why do we have to learn about black holes in Year 10?

To be more accurate, students in NSW learn about black holes in Year 9 or 10 (It’s this thing we call Stage 5, which is Year 9 and 10). I understand that the need to learn age-appropriate concepts. For example, many early primary school-aged students may not have the cognitive ability to tackle abstract concepts (you know, because of all the Piaget stuff). However, I don’t see why if my Year 8s want to learn about black holes (and I know they will be able to), they can’t learn about it because the syllabus says they learn it in Stage 5. When you learn swimming, your age doesn’t determine what kind of things you learn, it’s how fast you are progressing and what you are ready to learn.

Why can’t we learn about black holes and the ozone layer?

Why couldn’t I have let my students go online on their phones and look up videos and websites that helped answer their questions about black holes and share it with the class, and then continue with the ozone layer? I wanted to, but I only have 3 hours with them a week and I only see them an hour at a time. Last year I had the same class for 14 hours a week in an integrated curriculum and I would’ve let them explore black holes and then continue with ozone layer because I had the flexibility to do so. However, now I am back to a more traditional and rigid timetable where learning starts and stops with the school bell. Previously I have blogged about the challenges of implementing project based learning in such a traditional school structure. The more I try to implement project based learning or anything that builds on students’ curiosity and passion or anything that personlises their learning, the more I want to knock down the existing school structure. A few days ago, I was in a workshop with Greg Whitby on teaching and learning in a Web2.0 world. He said the timetable is the one thing that is stopping effective learning and teaching. I couldn’t agree with that point more.

Greg also talked about agile learning spaces. I have to admit when I first heard of agile learning spaces a few years ago, I just liked the look of them. The bright colours and funky furniture looked particularly attractive when you are used to 1950s furniture in classrooms. But since I’ve started PBL, I get it a bit more. So going back to the black hole scenario … In an agile learning space style of learning, Daniel would’ve presented his science news to the whole cohort of Year 8 or a mixture of students from different year groups in one large space. The ones who were interested in learning more about black holes can go with one teacher and the others can go with the other teachers to continue to learn about the ozone layer. Teaching and learning is no longer restricted to one teacher teaching 30 students. Depending on the need, you can be teaching one student or 10 students or 80 students. The space enables you to do so. There are no walls that says you have to teach 30 students at a time. There are also no bells to tell you that you need to spend 60 minutes on learning something; you take as long as you need to. The video below gives you an idea of what learning is like in an agile learning environment.

And now I don’t how to end this post. I sort of feel disillusioned. I want to knock down the walls of my classroom but realistically that can’t happen. Not just yet anyway. So when the school week starts again, it will be back to the status quo. *Sigh*

SOLO and 21st century learning

So it has been about a week after #sologlobalchat, a TweetMeet (an online conversation on Twitter) that involved teachers from Australia, New Zealand and the UK. If you don’t know what SOLO is watch this video and read this.

From #sologlobalchat we created an Edmodo group to continue our conversations and collaboration. On that Edmodo group I shared an assessment that a colleague and I worked on for a unit of work based on SOLO.

For Part 2 we came up with some questions that will guide students’ evaluation of an existing public health campaign. When I uploaded it onto Edmodo, a teacher called Craig Perry from Christchurch, New Zealand, modified the part into a SOLO exploded map. Not only is the exploded map more visually appealing than a bunch of questions typed up on a sheet (which is essentially what I had at the start), but the exploded map also classifies each question into a SOLO level. (Note that Craig and I have never met. This once again shows how generous the teaching profession is.)

The exploded map demonstrates one of the main reasons why I love SOLO. SOLO lets teachers take a step back and analyse whether they are helping students develop higher order thinking skills. When we talk about 21st learning, we often criticise how traditional school tasks can be completed by students using Google. Using SOLO can help teachers overcome this. If a task only requires students to work the unistructural, multistructural and sometimes even the relational level, can be completed by Google. For something that is non-Googlable, it needs to be extended abstract.

How many of the tasks your students do are non-Googlable? Perhaps SOLO can help 🙂

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

IMG_4162

 (4)    Assigning SOLO verbs

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

Level 1
Uni/multistructural
Level 2
Relational
Level 3
Extended abstract
Describe
Identify
Name
List
Follow a simple procedure
Compare and contrast
Explain causes
Sequence
Analyse
Relate
Form an analogy
Apply
Criticise
Evaluate
Predict
Hypothesise
Reflect
Generate
Formulate
CreateJustify

 (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?

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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.