Taking personalised and differentiated learning to the next level

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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.

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? 

3 things I’ve learnt from supporting teachers


This year one of my roles is to support teachers in using technology to further enhance teaching and learning for their students. I feel very privileged to have such a position because it is one of the best professional learning experiences I have; I learn so much from the teachers I support.

So here’s a summary of what I have learnt:

1. It’s not about me; it’s about them and their students

Those who know me knows that I like to try new things, especially with technology. I like to take risks with designing learning new experiences. I often go into the classroom with “this can go really well or it will blow up in my face” (Don’t worry. The usual result is option A). This doesn’t mean that other teachers have the same attitude and that’s OK. Some teachers like small steps and others like giant leaps. I have learnt that the best way to support a teacher to shift their practice is to find out what they and their students’ needs are. It’s not about how I would teach the class.

2. I do. We do. You Do.

The “I do. We do. You Do” strategy is one that many teachers use to teach students reading comprehension and writing. It’s otherwise known as “Deconstruction. Group Construction. Independent Construction”. When teachers teach students how to write or read for understanding, they would first model the process, then students do the process as a group then students do the process independently. Basically the aim is to make the teacher redundant. This is what I’ve been doing with the teachers and classes I’ve been supporting. My aim is to make my role redundant. For example, in Year 8 French, students and their teacher have been using Google Apps to enable a more efficient feedback model. My role was to teach students how to use Google Apps, teach the teacher how to use comments, editing modes and revision history to give students feedback and show students how to act on this feedback in Google Apps. Towards the last few weeks of the term, I wasn’t needed in the room. The kids knew what to do. The teacher knew what to do. In fact, the student starting using Google Apps for feedback with her other classes, without me helping her at all. The kids are now using Google Apps in their other subjects without their teachers directing them to and are showing their teachers how to use the technology. So I have made my role redundant.

3. From little things big things grow

In the beginning, I was supporting the classes with “little things” like resetting students’ computer and internet access passwords, helping them connect their devices to the school wifi, showing students how to access Google Apps, things that I considered “little” as they were basic technical steps. However, I’ve realised these “little things” are absolutely essential for many teachers and students. It enabled the teachers and students to get over hurdles that switch off a lot of them from trying new ways of teaching and learning with technology.

So I have one more term in this role of supporting teachers. I have loved every minute of it so far. While teachers have thanked me for teaching them, it is them who are teaching me new things.

Managing impacts of staffing on your workload

As any leader of a curriculum area would know, when teachers you supervise call in sick, it can be an absolute nightmare on your workload. It can also cause a lot of stress during the day, particularly when multiple teachers take sick leave at the same time, which often happens during winter. I had such a day today when I had two teachers call in sick, both with a large number of lessons on their timetables. It took me over an hour to plan their lessons , organise all the printing and rolls for their relieving teachers. This meant starting the work at home at 6am. It is not a teacher’s fault when they call in sick. When you are sick, you are sick and there’s nothing you can do, but the impact on other teachers can be significant. I’ve spoken to some curriculum leaders for advice on how to better manage this impact on my workload as I don’t want it to impact my time with my baby. Before baby, I can go to school at 7am when multiple teachers call in sick. But now I can’t as my baby needs to be dropped off at daycare first and I don’t want to because I don’t want to sacrifice time I spend with baby in the morning. She shouldn’t miss out on time with her parent because others has called in sick. So here are some strategie I’ve been told:

(1) Unless a teacher is so sick they are in an emergency ward, they have to set their own relief work

I know this is a strategy in some schools but I don’t like it for several reasons. It encourages sick teachers to come to school because coming to school when you are too sick is easier than setting the relief work. This facilitates the spread of the illness and the next thing you know, more teachers are sick. I also think when you are sick, you should be resting and recovering, not setting relief work.

(2) A buddy system

Some have suggested that each teacher should be buddies with another teacher so that when one teacher is sick, the buddy has to set the relief work. I haven’t tried this but I think it’s a bit of a cop out from the curriculum leader. It’s almost like palming off your role to your staff. I personally will not implement this system by choice.

(3) Programming with relief work already in place

This is the strategy I like so far and would like to put in place from next term. Programs for units of work have one-off, relief teacher friendly work for each lesson. Teachers have to complete their registers day by day and leave them on their desks so that anyone can see where they are up to at any time. This strategy takes a lot of work to set up but will minimise stress and workload increase.
So how do you deal with the workload that comes with teachers taking sick leave?

What I wished I knew about returning to work from maternity leave

My baby at 7 months old. I returned to full time work when she was 6 months old.

My baby at 7 months old. I returned to full time work when she was 6 months old.

In my previous post I shared my concerns about how to balance taking care of a young baby and the demands of being a head teacher in a high school. It has now been five weeks since I have returned to work full time after maternity leave. My baby is now 7 months old. So I thought it was timely to share how I have found the juggle act between family and work so far.

To my surprise, I have not found the balancing act between workload and baby duty the most challenging. This is challenging but not the most challenging. The most challenging is expressing during school hours. For those who are not familiar with the needs of taking care of a baby under one year old, here’s a brief summary of what expressing means. Breast milk is the main source of nutrition for a baby up to one year of age. (A baby can be given formula, but I choose to continue to breastfeed my baby.) To work full time, you need to express breast milk so that your baby can be fed the breast milk via a bottle or cup by their carer when you’re at work. When you are away from your baby, it is optimal to express at times when you would be breast feeding. This is not just about making sure your baby has a sufficient amount of milk but it is also prevent you from getting mastitis.

So this means I have to express twice at school. Luckily the NSW Department of Education and Communities has a very supportive breastfeeding policy and mothers returning to work have the right to two thirty-minute breaks during school hours for expressing. My school is also extremely supportive. But it is still VERY CHALLENGING because it restricts the amount of time I’m available to support my faculty during class. Expressing needs to be done at certain time periods and it restricts you from doing anything else. This means for one hour a day I am unavailable to support my faculty. It is not like teaching a class or having a meeting where you can drop what you are doing and help another teacher. I’m lucky that being head teacher I have a reduced number of face-to-face classes, which makes it easier to fit in two expressing sessions. For classroom teachers, it would be extremely hard. I don’t even want to think about how challenging it would be for primary school teachers, who don’t have ‘free’ periods each day.

What I find surprising is that I didn’t know about these challenges of expressing until I have to go through it myself. It is just not spoken about. I wish I knew about the challenges of expressing at work. Not for my sake but for others who will also go through this.

Last year I had one teacher in my faculty who returned to work full time when her baby was 5 months old. Like me, she was also expressing so that her baby can continue to breast feed when she was at work. But because I was ignorant and didn’t even give a second thought to this, I don’t think I provided her with the support I should have. Doing things like scheduling meetings at lunch times probably did not make things easier for her. If I had known last year what I know now, I would’ve excused her from meetings at recess or lunch or negotiating a better time. I would’ve also offered to deal with any student issues from classes right before recess and lunch, and to start classes after recess and lunch if necessary.

Teaching is a very female-dominated profession and sometime in the future I’m sure I will be working with and/or leading a colleague who is returning to work from maternity leave when their baby is under one year old. At least next time I will know what kinds of support to offer.

No longer the solo crazy dancing guy

We have all seen the crazy dancing guy video. The video emphasises that a leader must start a movement. At the start you will be dancing like a crazy lunatic by yourself but eventually you will have your first follower, then more followers and dancing like crazy will no longer be crazy but the norm. The important thing is to get the first initial followers!

For a while I have felt like I was dancing alone, but not anymore. I knew that when my faculty was programming for the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum and a teacher said “I think we should make the natural disasters unit project based learning” and other teachers agreed. It is no longer me who is suggesting new pedagogical approaches, but other teachers in the faculty.

I also had another teacher in my faculty move from very traditional styles of assessment to experimenting with new approaches. Instead of relying on written, research-based assessments, his Year 11 Physics class was given the challenge of teaching a historical model of the solar system to Year 8 students.

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Year 11 Physics students teaching Year 8s

There are heaps more examples of other teachers in the faculty embracing and driving change themselves. They are now becoming dancers as well and are encouraging others to dance with them. I am so proud of my faculty and how far we have progressed as a team, all with the aim of improving science learning for our students.

“I didn’t feel like I was teaching” – journey in leading others in PBL

But I didn’t feel like I was teaching

One of the teachers on my faculty (let’s call her Ann for this post) said this to me during our scheduled discussion on her professional goals. At the start of the year, Ann said her professional goal for 2013 was to implement project based learning (PBL) in her Year 9 class.

After looking at the BIE website for a while and attending one of Ashley Cantanzariti’s PBL workshop, Ann created crowd-sourced a driving question for this term’s unit for her Year 9 class with a cross-school group of teachers (this happened in our school’s School Development Day which involved our community of schools). We came up with the driving question of “Will an earthquake or tsunami happen in Sydney?”. The only teacher-centred lesson that Ann gave was the introduction lesson to let the students know the expectations and organisation of their new project. The class sorted themselves into groups and brainstormed what they needed to find out for this project. Ann used Edmodo for students to collaborate and upload their progress of work so she could give them feedback. After several weeks, the groups of students presented their findings to the driving question by choosing whatever medium they thought was appropriate. Some groups chose GoAnimate while other groups made a diorama.

When we were discussing whether Ann thought PBL was very effective for her students to learn science, one of the most memorable things she said was

They found out what an epicenter was, the focus and all other features of earthquakes by themselves. I didn’t have to even tell them.”

This ties in with the first quote on this blog post. Ann expressed that she didn’t feel like she was “teaching” because the students were driving so much of the learning. She recognised that most of the “work” was done prior to the project in designing the driving question and the workflows of how students will submit drafts of work, receive feedback and revise their work, but it was so different to what she was used to she felt like she was not teaching. Her concept of teaching was changing from content deliverer to learning designer and facilitator.

I often feel this way as well. When my students are happily working in their groups, finding answers to their own questions, negotiating with others on what sort of product to make and reflecting on their goals, I often feel like I’m not their teacher or even needed in the classroom. I know that for effective learning to happen students are working harder than teachers (or just as hard) and an effective teacher makes themselves redundant overtime. However, both and I are still somewhat influenced by the traditional notion of teaching – that teaching is a teacher telling students what they need to know. This often challenged concept still has a lot of pull on what both teachers and students perceive learning to be.

Overall this is a step forward for our faculty in terms of changing pedagogies. Instead of only me doing PBL, we now have another teacher implementing PBL and talking to others about how good it is for students.