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.

A story in 2 minutes – a multimedia activity for all subjects

My principal shared this video with me today. It’s called Our Story in 2 Minutes. The video summarises the Earth’s history from the Big Bang till now in two minutes.

This inspired me to come up with some similar story-in-2-minutes activities where students can create a video using images only to represent the development of an event. It doesn’t even have to be two minutes. It can be one minute, three minutes, however long you and your students like. A video of images can be made to sequence the events in the evolution of life on Earth, the development of our current understanding of the universe, development of the cell theory, development of our understanding of genetics … the list goes on and on and it can be used in subjects other than science.

What I like about this activity is that it’s simple and yet allows students to create and engage in deep learning that extends from a subject area and even be part of a cross-KLA activity. It’s simple for both students and teachers as it involves searching and selecting images that represents certain ideas and events and then inserting the images into a video-editing program such as Windows Movie Maker or even PowerPoint. Technology tools that don’t require a high level of technical expertise from either teachers or students and are available to most students. The activity is also simple in the sense that it does not have to take long, which can be a good activity to suggest to teachers who are concerned about being pressed for time.

To create stories in 2 minutes also allow students the opportunity to learn about digital citizenship. Can students use any images pulled from the web? Do they have to search for creative commons images? How do they acknowledge the source of images? This activity is not only about the content of a subject area.

Finally creating stories in 2 minutes can be adapted into project-based learning or provide an opportunity to create a product that can be shared with a public audience beyond the classroom. Creating a story in 2 minutes require students to first understand the content, select and justify appropriate images that best represent the content and sequence them in a logical order. It allows students to apply higher order thinking skills.

I teach in Sydney, Australia so my school year is starting in about a week’s time. I will be definitely using the story-in-2-minutes concept this year.

What will you use it for?

 

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.

 

3 reasons why students are switching off science

There is a decline in student interest in science. Just type “students decline science” and hundreds of articles will come up of students not choosing to study science in post-compulsory schooling in countries like Australia, USA and the UK. At a time where technology is rapidly increasing and the world is facing issues like climate change, rapid rates of extinction, water shortage and food shortage, it is worrying to see students switching off science.

What I find more concerning is my observations that kids love watching science YouTube channels at home in their own time, but they are not enjoying school science. Something is wrong. While the reasons below for why students are switching off science are not validated by any research data, they are inklings that I have based on observations of students and numerous student surveys completed at my school on their engagement in science.

Reason #1 – Science teachers rely too much on whiz-bang experiments to make science interesting

I think every science teacher is guilty of this. I certainly am. We often use showy experiments for entertainment to keep students engaged. Instead of promoting our subject as intrinsically interesting, we use colourful and bubbly experiments to “trick” students into liking science. How many times do we have students walk into a science lab and ask “are we doing an experiment today” and groan when the answer is no. Of course experiments have a place in science, but science isn’t about setting things on fire or making things explode. Science is a way of thinking and aligns with humans’ natural curiosity of understanding of the world around us. I think we have pushed science as a subject of fire and explosions for so long that this is what students expect and they are disappointed when a unit of work or a series of lessons do not have experiments.

Reason #2 – Science lessons often do not allow all students to experience some success

In NSW, Australia, Year 8 students do a state-wide test called Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA). At the end of ESSA, students are asked to rank their favourite subjects. Since 2006, year after year the results show students like PDHPE and Visual Art the most. My gut feeling is that these subjects allow ALL students to experience some success. In Visual Art, it doesn’t matter if you are a not-so-good painter or if you are as brilliant as Picasso, every single student is able to produce an artwork, which is showcased. Same with PDHPE, it doesn’t matter how bad or good you are at sport, every single student have been part of a team that has won a game and experienced the excitement of success. Not so in science. In many science lessons, students don’t produce anything that can be showcased. Only a handful of student who are “good” at science feel success. A lot of students think they are “bad” at science. This is one of the reasons why I’m a fan of project based learning (PBL). PBL enables students to create a product that shows their learning and they showcase that product to an authentic audience. This give students a sense of success.

Reason #3 – Students don’t know the careers that science can lead to

Not many students see scientists in their everyday lives. They see bankers, accountants, lawyers but they rarely see scientists or associate jobs with science. In the surveys at my school, the most common reason given for not wanting to study science in post-compulsory schooling is that they don’t need science for their job or career. While we as science teachers know that many jobs and careers require some understanding of science, do our students know? Do we link our students to current practicing scientists so they can what they learn in school is actually used in people’s jobs in real life?

At my school we have been pushing for connections with university pHd students and current scientists. Through the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), our students have been lucky enough to go to the university regularly and hear about current research conducted pHd students and meet scientists face-to-face and know that science can lead to a fulfilling career. We have utlised the scientists in schools program to have a scientist come to talk to our students about what she does in her everyday job and why finds her job fun and rewarding. We also ask parents to come to school and speak to our students. This year, we had a parent who works in the communications industry speak to our students about his job, how it requires an understanding of energy transmission and waves and how much he loves his job.

A marine biologist specialising in sharks speak to Year 8s about this job and why he loves being a scientist.

A marine biologist specialising in sharks speak to Year 8s about this job and why he loves being a scientist.

And has all this gotten results? Many of our year 10 students apply to attend UTS summer school where they can choose from film, design, science, IT and health over the Christmas holidays. In previous years I have struggled to get any students to apply for the science summer school. Everyone wanted to film and design. After a couple of years of connecting students with university science students and real scientists, we have 12 students apply for science summer school this year.

As we are entering the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum in NSW, it is time that science teachers re-think HOW we teach science and how can we work with the scientific community to increase student engagement in science.

 

Small changes can make a huge difference

Over the past few years I have been constantly changing the way I teach due to introduction of 1:1 laptop initiatives in some classes and a continually-developing understanding of how students learn. In a lot of cases it has involved turning things upside down and completely rewriting units of work. This is tiring. Worth it but tiring. But I found out recently that small, minor changes can make a huge difference too. The Student Research Project (SRP) has been around since I was in high school. It’s an oldie but a goodie. The SRP involves students planning, doing and reporting on an experiment of their choice. It is a compulsory activity for all Year 7-10 students in NSW, Australia. Each student must do at least one SRP once in Year 7 and 8, and another one in Year 9 and 10. By doing the SRP, students learn how to design a fair experiment, a must-have skill for all scientists! See here for more info on the SRP.

It was the Year 8’s turn to do the SRP in September this year. The traditional way of doing the SRP is for students to choose an experiment, plan it, do it and then submit a written report. This year my faculty decided to revamp it and not just rehash the status quo. However this didn’t involve major changes that would stress everyone out. It involved a few tweaks that would have the most impact. Like always we gave students the choice of whatever experiment they wanted. My class were doing experiments ranging from water absorption of different types of soils to whether particular types of video games would improve people’s reaction times to using Gary’s Mod to run a simulated experiment. However instead of forcing students to do a written report, we decided to let students choose how to present their SRP findings in whatever medium they wanted. Some students still chose to submit a written report (but by sharing it as a Google document to make the feedback process more efficient) while other students chose to create Prezis or videos. Students had to justify why their chosen medium would be the most effective in communicating their findings to others. At the conclusion of the SRP, students shared their findings with their class over a two-day conference, just like real scientists.

In the presentations I would usually get students to give each other feedback (one medal and one mission) by writing it down on a piece of paper, which I will take home and collate and then give back to students. This was a really inefficient way of doing it. Students had to wait at least 24 hours to get peer feedback and it took me time to type of the students’ feedback. This time I decided to create a backchannel on Edmodo that students used to give feedback to each presenter. Students did this by using laptops. A designated student had the role of creating a post for each presenter and then the whole class will reply to that post with a medal and mission for the presenter. Doing it this way meant that the presenter got the feedback as soon as they finished presenting; they didn’t have to wait till the next day after I’ve collated the class’ feedback. Students really liked the immediacy of the feedback they got from the Edmodo backchannel. There was also one student who made a video for his SRP, but he was ill over the two days of the presentations. His video was still shown and he was able to receive feedback on it at home from his peers via the Edmodo backchannel.

A sample of the Edmodo backchannel

So just with a little of tweaking, the good ol’ SRP has been thrusted into the 21st century. I didn’t have to completely re-write it or turn it upside down. Just by adding Google docs, more student choice and Edmodo, the SRP was made a million times better for students as a learning process. From the end-of-term evaluations, many students from across all Year 8 classes identified the SRP to be their favourite activity this term because it gave them choice, it let them use technology and they learnt by doing.

Next time I’d like to have students sharing their findings with a global audience, or at least with an audience beyond their class. But one small step at a time 🙂