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.

Along came SOLO

I had an epiphany in the Christmas holidays. All of sudden everything I have learnt about learning from university teacher education, academic readings, personal experiences as a student and my day-to-day experiences as a teacher gelled together into a completed puzzle.

I have always been a teacher who likes to try new things. That’s because I always want to improve my students’ learning and achievements. However everything I have done seems to be in pieces and it felt like I was moving from one fad to another. The list below briefly lists all the learning strategies I have implemented in my past 5 years of teaching:

  • Project based learning
  • Games based learning
  • Gamification
  • Social networking
  • Assessment for learning
  • Habits of mind
  • Goals, medals and missions model of feedback

This list doesn’t include all the whacky science experiments that attempt to increase student engagement and students’ understanding of abstract concepts. The list doesn’t include the large array of online tools I use with students. The list also doesn’t include the large number of classroom management strategies I have tried.

Not only did it feel like I was moving from one new fad to another, I have always questioned the effectiveness of these strategies. My students were engaged and achieving. I knew this from their work samples and survey responses. However, how do I know each and every one of my students were having their achievement and learning maximised by whichever strategy I was using. All of the strategies I used require intensive effort from the teacher. How did I know the pay-off was balanced by the effort put in?

And along came SOLO …

SOLO isn’t new to me. I have always had a good understanding of SOLO from working on ESSA and NAPSL. SOLO is a framework for classifying different levels of understanding. In some ways it is similar to Bloom’s taxonomy.

But before the Christmas holidays, SOLO was one of the things on the long list of strategies. However during the holidays, I read two books that finally pieced everything together – Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning and Using SOLO as a framework for Teaching.

The key messages I got from Hattie’s books are:

  1. Teachers are activators and evaluators of learning
  2. Goal setting, self monitoring, concentration and deliberate practice are among the most effective strategies

This really spoke to me because it felt like someone finally have said to me I was on the right track for having my students complete all those surveys, exit passes, regular quizzes, etc so that I knew how they were going and change my teaching accordingly. Also it was always my gut feeling from my first year of teaching that this mind set was what set brilliant teachers apart from the others.

But then I asked myself how am I going to do this? How am I going to evaluate learning effectively? How am I going to develop my students’ skills in self regulation? How will I lead my faculty in doing this?

This is where SOLO comes in. SOLO can be used to develop learning intentions and success criteria for units of work. Learning intentions are the aims of a lesson (or series of lessons) while success criteria are what students have to do to be successful in that lesson. The success criteria are classified by the SOLO taxonomy, which lets both the student and the teacher know how the student is progressing and adjust the teaching and learning process accordingly. The book Using SOLO as a framework for Teaching has a process for teachers to develop units of work, including learning attentions and success criteria.  I have created some draft learning intentions and success criteria for the first units I’ll be teaching this year using the process from the book.

One star = uni/multistructural

Two stars = relational

Three stars = extended abstract

The success criteria let students know where they are now and where they are to go next. It lets students know what they need to do or know to demonstrate a surface level and deep level of understanding. It actually fits very nicely with the goals, medals and missions model of feedback.

What I have done is also use the SOLO-based learning intentions and success criteria to design PBL units of work. The success criteria shown above is part of a PBL unit based on the driving question “Sharks: Friends or Foes” where students have to make a critical judgement on the roles of sharks in an ecosystem and the impacts of sharks on humans. I have also created pre-tests and post-tests (some of these are short quizzes and some use the ‘letter-to-a-friend’ strategy) so that my students and I know whether learning has been effective. I will also be attempting to measure effect sizes.

For me SOLO ties together all those strategies I have tried before. They are no longer bits and pieces that I pluck out for different years for different classes. SOLO provides an anchor for me. For example, I can now say I am using games based learning/project based learning/etc for this because it will help my students move from uni/multistructural to extended abstract for these learning intentions. SOLO provides me (and hopefully my faculty in the near future) with a learning framework to base our discussions of learning and evaluation on.

I am also going to use SOLO-based learning intentions and success criteria to design programs for the Australian Curriculum.

So this year will be a journey into SOLO. Watch this space for updates 🙂