My #EduGoals for 2016

In many areas of Australia, the new school year is about to start. In the state of New South Wales, many schools return this week. As the new school year beckons, I’m like many teachers who are thinking about their educational goals (EduGoals) for the new year. Here’s my 3 EduGoals for 2016:

1. Using learning spaces to further enhance teaching and learning

classroom

My classroom this year

Last year I was very lucky to have received a bunch of more flexible furniture from John Goh. To put things in context, I’ve always been very lucky to have a “nice” learning space. The science lab I’m in was only refurbished in 2010 so my classes and I have always worked with new furniture. However, when I began my project based learning journey in 2012, I realised that the standard two-seater rectangular tables were no longer working. Students wanted a space where they can easily transition from whole-class instruction/discussion, to small group work and to individual work. The space, as it was, was very effective for whole class instruction, but not for small group work where students needed to collaborate and often worked on different projects at different paces. For the next few years, students spilled out into the hallways, took up nearby classrooms if they weren’t being used and even moved out into the quad in order to work on their projects as a team.

I’m hoping that with this new set up, more space is created. John enlightened me last year when he told me that it’s not about furniture, it’s about space. For a long time I’ve always looked at how to get round tables or pac-man shaped tables so that 30 students can have their own desk. It isn’t about that. It’s about creating space to learn. At the moment there’s only enough table space for 24 students. However, students can sit on the floor or move over to the “wet” area of the lab where there are standing desks. I gave away lots of my original furniture in order to do this. I think I still need to get rid of more.

I’m continuing to ensure the walls of the classroom is used for learning. I visited a New Zealand school a few years ago where the teacher said: “Anyone, doesn’t matter if it’s a student, teacher, parent or someone else, should be able to walk into a classroom and know what the class is learning and doing immediately without asking anyone.” I haven’t used my classroom walls for “decoration” for a few years now. The walls are filled with our learning routines, our “topics”, current projects, relevant learning strategies and displays of student work.

stuck posters

Posters of strategies to encourage independent thinking and problem solving

classroom wall

Timetable and posters showing current topics for different key learning areas

 

2. Using technology to further enhance teaching and learning

Last year, I played around with OfficeMix. I really like how it is an addition to PowerPoint and can create videos that work across all platforms. This year I’m going to be using OfficeMix to create a flip classroom for maths. I’m planning to have students sign in so that I can get analytics and use that to inform my future practice. I’m also going to get back into OneNote. I’ve been following the work of Pip Cleaves in how she is using OneNote to create staff and class notebooks. I’m keen to see how it can work for me, my faculty, my students and my school.

 

3. Using video to improve my practice

Classroom observations is a key strategy in teachers reflecting on, and further improving on their practice at my school. I’d like to step it up this year and include video analysis when a colleague observes me. Having a video recording to look back on would seem to enrich the feedback from the colleague in the post-observation meeting. I know video analysis of teacher practice is done regularly at some schools and I’d like to try that personally.

 

4. Finding work/life satisfaction

Last year was my first year of full time work after returning from maternity leave. My baby is now 18 months old. Being a parent and a full time teacher plus a leader is challenging. My online PLN often talks of work life balance. However, Jason Borton said to me on Twitter that he calls it “work/life satisfaction” and not “balance”. I really like the term “satisfaction” than “balance”. To me, balance is more quantitative. Something like ‘I must spend equal amounts of time doing work, spending time with my family and doing things I enjoy.’ On the other hand, “satisfaction” seems more qualitative to me. ‘Am I happy?’ “Satisfaction” is also more personal. Work/life satisfaction is different to each individual and it doesn’t have to be 50/50 all the time.

 

 

baby V

Baby V

Formative assessment with hexagons

Formative assessment is something I’ve been putting a lot more emphasis on over the past few years. I’m so sick of just relying of end-of-topic exams to gauge what students have learnt. I want my students to continuously question how they are going and make changes to their learning accordingly. This is one of the reasons that my faculty has embarked on a Structured Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) journey this year. One of the ways that many teachers using SOLO use to assess student learning is with SOLO hexagons.

SOLO hexagons involves the major concepts or ideas from a topic to be placed individually onto hexagons. Students then work individually or in groups to connect the hexagon concepts together and they must justify why they have made these connections. It is the justification where both the teacher and the student can assess the student’s learning. It is how students have connected the hexagons and their justification of WHY they have done it that way that allows their learning and thinking to then be assessed using the SOLO taxonomy (or not; the hexagon activity still works with no understanding of SOLO).

Here’s a video showing one way of using the SOLO hexagons in a UK science class.

Here’s an explanation of how to use SOLO hexagons from the SOLO guru, Pam Hooke.

I changed the hexagon activity slightly to suit the needs of my students. The picture shows the instructions that my students received.

instructions for hexagon activity

And here are the hexagons my students used (note that the hexagons were pre-cut for students and placed into zip lock bags with the above instruction card). My students worked in groups of 2 to 4. I used the SOLO hexagon generator to create the hexagons.

Here’s some samples of the hexagons my students made.

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Some things I noticed was that:

  • My students were all fantastic at explaining each hexagon concept
  • Some groups connected all the nervous system concepts and the endocrine system concepts together, showing they had an understanding that the nervous system and endocrine system worked together. However all the groups had the immune system concepts separate altogether. I did spend a lot of class time making it explicit that the nervous system and the endocrine system work together to control and coordinate the body. And while the students’ project was to make a fact sheet about how a particular disease/health issue affected the nervous system and the endocrine system, they seem to think that the immune system works on its own and is completely separate from the other systems.

From this activity we discussed their SOLO levels of understanding and how they can use their hexagon connections to see whether they were at a unistructural level, multistructural level, relational level or extended abstract level. Most students concluded they were at a relational level for most concepts and some thought they were extended abstract for some parts of the topic.

The SOLO hexagon activity is definitely something I will use again with my students. Now that they have done it once, the next time will run even better. Feedback from students was that they enjoyed talking about science with each other and that they learnt a lot from each other just by listening to what others had to say about each concept.

 

Giving students a say in their homework

This is probably not new but this term I’m trialling a different way of doing homework with Year 9s.

I try to make homework so it doesn’t become a workload burden for myself and my students. A lot of my students have extra-curricular activities like sport and I have had quite a few parent phone calls raising the concern between balancing their family lives and homework. I’ve also had the issue of different access to resources from home. A lot of my students love doing homework activities online, but not all of my students have internet access. To create a set of online homework activities and then another set of offline activities, for all four of my classes became too labour-intensive that there was very low return-of-investment.

So this term I’m doing something different with Year 9s. They will be given a choice in what kinds of homework they want to. The topic is on the nervous system, endocrine system and immune system.

I’ve made sure there are activities that are quite basic (like completing a table) to activities that are higher-order that require the creation of products like video. I’ve also made sure that students can choose HOW they complete their homework. They can do things electronically or on paper.

Not sure how this will go, but is worth trying. I’d love your thoughts on this, whether you’re a student, parent, teacher or anyone else.

Watch this space for updates 🙂

Creating a classroom community

Today was the first day where all students were back at school. I had my first lesson with most of my classes today. I never launch into content in the first day. I like to get to know my students first. This year however I want to go further than that and kick off the year by allowing my students to get to know each other as learners. Many of my students know each other socially, but not how they like to learn.

While I don’t have any hard data, I’ve always had the inkling that high student achievement not only depends on individual students, but how the whole class works as a group. My higher-performing classes are where individual students apply themselves more but they also get along with each other and help each other. These classes have a sense of community. Each student has a sense of belonging. They work as a team. I want this for all my classes by design, not by random luck.

So this year I used the first lesson to kick start the establishment of a class community. Students did two activities: (1) Getting to know you as a learner in 3-2-1 and (2) My perfect classroom to learn in …

Getting to know you as a learner in 3-2-1

Students paired up and interviewed each other on 3 of their favourite things about science, 2 things they find hard about science and 1 thing they want the teacher to know to help them learn the best that they can.

For larger classes, I asked some students to share their responses and then collected their interview sheets to look at later. For smaller classes, all students shared their responses and they were tallied so that students can see what they have in common with other students in terms of learning. Here’s an example from my Year 11 Senior Science class.

photo of tallied results of 3-2-1 activity

My perfect classroom to learn in …

This activity is used to establish classroom expectations where all students get a say. In pairs students brainstorm what their perfect classroom is like. In their perfect classroom what are they doing as students? What are other students doing? What is the teacher doing? All responses are collated on the board and classroom expectations are established.

photo of perfect classroom results from year 11

I know some teachers will think this is a ‘soft’ approach and that I should lay down the law instead and let students know who is boss. But I much prefer this way. I really want to focus on developing positive learning relationships amongst students as I strongly believe this will lead to better learning and achievement.

 

My 4 goals for 2014

an image of two people drawing targets

In New South Wales, Australia, the 2014 school year is just about to start so I thought I’d share with you my 4 professional goals for 2014.

Goal #1 – Keeping science real

2013 was the year where I started the journey of connecting my students with current, practising Australian scientists. This was a response to our students’ survey responses that they did not know many careers or jobs that science can lead them to. They also did not know what scientists actually do. Many students have accountants, tradespeople, bankers, etc within their families or family friends but students often do not have exposure to scientists in their everyday lives (ask a student to name a scientist and they’ll still tell you Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein; they rarely name a living scientist). We wanted to make science real in the sense that we can put real people’s faces to what the students learn in the classroom. So in 2013 our school connected with Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools, where we are now partnered with scientist Melina Georgousakis. Melina has already spoken to our Year 8s and 9s on her journey to becoming a scientist, what she does in her job and explained how the immune system and vaccinations work (that’s her area of expertise). In our end-of-topic survey, a lot of our year 9s listed Melina’s visit as the best activity of the topic. In their words the best part of the topic was “when the lady came in to talk about vaccines”. In 2014 we have plans for our Year 12 Biology students to work with Melina when they explore the immune system more deeply.

2014 will also be the year where I want to utilise social media and technology to connect students with scientists, not just in Australia but from around the world. In 2013 social media led me to connect with a postgraduate student called Ash from the University of Technology, Sydney, where he came to the school and spoke to Year 8s about his work with sharks (Year 8s were learning about the role of sharks in the ecosystem and how removing sharks as apex predators impact on the ecosystem). We also connected with Dr Mel Thompson from Deakin University and Dr Karl via Skype. In 2014 I am hoping to expand to using Twitter to connect with my students with scientists. I want to create a class Twitter account for my students and connect with scientists on Twitter. There’s so many of them such as @realscientists and Dr Cameron Webb.

Goal #2 – Embed science communication into my teaching

I was very privileged to be involved in the UTS Summer School this year where I worked with Christy, a former Questacon presenter (a science communicator who does science shows for children). She re-emphasised to me the importance of designing learning that drives students’ curiosity and create learning experiences that are memorable. One of my biggest gripes with science education is that it uses flash-bang experiments inappropriately. You hear lots of students say they just want to do pracs. You hear a lot of teachers say that all students want to do are pracs. A lot of the times I think showy experiments are wasted at school as they only serve as entertainment. Christy re-emphasised to me that showy experiments need to be set up in a way that drives students to want to know the science WHY something has happened and the journey to understanding they experience must be memorable. This can mean turning explanations into stories, plays, musical items.

One of the ideas I have this year is to have a science communication project where students work in small groups and become science communicators themselves where they design and perform an act that explains a scientific concept. If I could I’d like to make this a cross-curricular project with Drama.

Goal #3 – Making learning, thinking and understanding visible

This year is where our faculty applies the Structured Observed Learning Framework (SOLO) for all students in Year 9. We have used this year’s implementation of the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum as a drive for this change. See this previous post for more details. The challenge (not so much a goal) will be to evaluate the impact on student learning.

Goal #4 – A better work/life balance

Over the last few years I realise that looking after yourself is a one of the most important jobs for teachers. After reading this post on 10 tips for slowing down, I really want to make sure that my entire faculty’s wellbeing is well looked after this year. I tend to be someone who doesn’t know when to stop. I feel guilty when I’m not doing work related to school. When I’m relaxing it feels like I’m doing some kind of injustice to my students’ education. I love my job but I’m no use to my students if I burn out. From the post on 10 tips for slowing down, I want to make these changes:

  • Allocate time to opening and closing meetings

Schools are such busy places that many teachers schedule meetings right on bell times so that we are rushing from one place to another. This year I want meetings where people are now running from their classrooms, crashing down and then expected to immediately adjust their mindframes. I’m hoping that simple things like having meetings start 5-10 minutes after the bell will avoid that rush feeling that make people stress.

  • Make time to eat

Eating recess and lunch is my other goal for wellbeing this year. While this seems self-explanatory, I know many teachers don’t eat, or sit down, or even visit the bathroom during school hours because there’s just so much to do. I’m not sure how successful I’ll be at this but this year I want to reduce the number of times where I eat my sandwich while driving home.

Learning about SOLO – using self regulation and feedback to increase student achievement

This year my faculty have been designing units of work for the new NSW science syllabus for the Australian Curriculum with the Structured Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) framework.(If you don’t know what SOLO is, watch this video for a crash course) The reason why we are investing quite heavily into SOLO is because as teachers, we know that self-regulation and quality feedback are the two of the most effective elements in increasing student achievement. SOLO, with its associated learning intentions and success criteria, will allow our faculty to develop our students’ self regulation skills and further improve the quality of teacher feedback and peer feedback.

For most of the year, we have been designing learning with the SOLO framework so that each series of lessons have learning intentions and success criteria catergorised  by the different SOLO levels of thinking and understanding. A couple of weeks ago, we went a step further. The whole faculty sat down and designed an agreed approach to how we will use these learning intentions and success criteria. As a team, we decided learning intentions, success criteria and SOLO were examples of best practice, but we need to ensure that it filters down to every individual student. We agreed that learning intentions, success criteria and SOLO must be high visible and evident in everyday teacher practice for it to have maximum impact on student achievement.

As a team we decided on the following for communicating learning intentions and success criteria to students:

  • At the start of a topic, students are given a list of the learning intentions and success criteria for the whole topic so they know where they are headed before they start learning about the topic.
  • Each lesson will have the specific learning intentions and success criteria displayed. This can be written on the board, or displayed via a data projector or interactive whiteboard.
  • The teacher will explain the learning intentions and success criteria to students at the start of the lesson.
  • At the last 10 minutes of the lesson, students are to reflect on whether they have achieved the success criteria for the lesson and what they need to do next to be successful.

As a team we also agreed that we need to teach students about SOLO. We have designed different activities for students to learn about SOLO. Here’s one of the activities

As a team we also agreed to providing student feedback using the SOLO framework.

What we hope to see are:

  • Students and teachers using a common language to discuss levels of thinking and understanding
  • Students and teachers using SOLO as a way to see current levels of thinking and learning and where that thinking and learning needs to head
  • More students moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Many students have a mindset that they are “not good” at science. We want our students to realise that to be good at science, there needs to be a certain level of thinking and learning that can be achieved with effort, as opposed to natural abilities. It’s part of making learning and thinking visible.

Our faculty has also devised a draft plan to evaluate the impact of SOLO on students’ achievements and mindsets, with help from a university academic. So watch this space for more updates on our SOLO journey.

 

“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.