Archive for category research

A ‘rhizomatic’ take on Semester one so far

Last week I had the good fortune to hear Professor Diana Masny speak about her Deleuzian approach to researching multiliteracies theory (which she referred to as ‘MLT’). Masny is from Ottowa, Canada, and is an adjunct prof at QUT.

In this presentation I was returned to the idea of ‘the rhizome’, something that had interested me when I encountered the work of Deleuze and Guattari. The idea behind looking at things rhizomatically is that we can stop focussing on binary oppositions, or organising concepts into ordered taxonomies and such. Instead, rhizomatic analysis involves looking at things and ideas spread/propagate…and at where new possibilities ‘shoot off’ out of of what already exists.

A rhizome in plant form

A rhizome in plant form

This talk by Masny was interesting for a number of reasons to do with designing research methodology, as well as considering MLT from new angles. One thing that inspired me was the way that her presentation was organised around ‘entry points’ to her own topic as a rhizomatic collection of findings. This is in contrast to a presentation that tries to summarise ‘key findings’ or ‘ways forward’. Seeing as I most often use my blog to reflect on ‘findings’ and ‘planning’, I thought it might make a nice change to adopt Masny’s (after Deleuze’s) approach of exploring the ‘entry points’ into my practice so far this semester…

ENTRY POINT: Attendance

At QUT we have a policy that attendance is not to be counted in any way toward assessment, and that students choosing to catch up on their study from home are to be supported in that choice. I have heard some lecturers complain about this – they think students would learn better if they turned up to all the classes, and wish the university would enforce this. Most of us, however, respect the purpose of this arrangement, which is to provide flexible study options for the grown-up human beings that are our ‘students’, and cater for a range of learning styles. Personally I find it very motivating, as it forces me to think about HOW I can make my lessons “worth coming to”!

I’m really happy with the attendance rate in my classes at the moment. Out of the 110 students I have studying on campus, almost 100% turned up in Week one, and the students that were away mostly emailed in their apologies. In Week 2, attendance in tutorials and the lecture was down to about 85%, which is to be expected. What I am eager to see is that 85% attendance rate maintained for the rest of the 9-week semester, rather than drop of over time to 20-50%, as other lecturers often report. I’m pleased to say that in the past few years here, I haven’t noticed the same kind of drop of, and I like to think this reflects the usefulness of my classes.

ENTRY POINT: Engagement

As always it has been a slow start on Twitter…but as always, there are several students ‘coming around’ to the tool already and engaging with informal peer tutoring as well. Once again, I am glad I chose to persevere with introducing students to an unfamiliar (and for many of them, unloved) social media tool.

I had a really great out-of-context engagement moment as well last week, on Pinterest. I use Pinterest among other things to collect useful resources for English teachers, and one day I saw a collage about English teaching and ‘re-pinned it’ to my board. I thought (and commented) ‘wow…this is just like an activity I do in class!’. Then I realised that I was following one of my students already, and that it was her! Funniest bit was though, she had been following me too without realising who I was, or making any connection to out uni lives. Good times!

There has been a growth in socia media profiles and ‘chats’ that I can now connect my students to, and the most important of these is the #ozengchat that takes place on Twitter on Tuesday nights. Feeling like they are engaging with ‘real teachers’ seems to be helping with motivation in the class, but at the moment that’s just my anecdotal take on the situation.

ENTRY POINT: Assessment

In my class students undertake THREE assessment tasks:

  1. Personal essay on teaching philosophy and resource analysis (individual, 30%)
  2. Lessons plans for a junior English class (in pairs, 40%)
  3. Portfolio of completed learning ‘challenge tasks’ (individual, 30%)

What I like about what I have achieved with this set of assessments is that there is a balance of individual and group work, that there is a variety of tasks, and that no task is worth more that 40%.

At this point I’ll put myself out there to say I am disappointed to see how many uni coordinators choose to use just TWO assessment piece in their own classes. This is not good practice imo! Having less assignments does mean a smaller marking load for the lecturer, and less due dates for the student, but at what cost?

I really do believe that students in uni should not have assessments that are worth 50% or over, as this is too high-stakes to promote good learning. To do this, you must have more than two assessments for a unit in a semester.

FINAL WORDS: The CLB018 ‘assemblage’

In the theory of Deleuze and Guattari, the context of my CLB018 class provides an assemblage of bodies and things that can produce any number of effects. I hoe to keep reporting throughout the semester on the effects (and affects) of our assemblage!

In the meantime, any comments on these POINTS OF ENTRY are most welcome.

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Classes start tomorrow!

The week we’ve all been waiting for, week one of the university semester, is finally here!

This semester, I will be focussing on the following areas of my English Curriculum Studies unit for development:

  • Building in more support for student reflective writing. The design of my lesson planning assignment last year included a tutorial presentation of the key teaching strategies, but it didn’t really work that well. So I plan to change this element of the assessment to a written reflection, and add two targeted activities to tutorials in mid-semester to more constructively scaffold the task.
  • Finding places to make connections between English curriculum studies content knowledge and other professional frameworks. In particular I want to ensure that students understand how the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers can be used to self-diagnose areas of strength and directions for further learning, and are knowledgable about the Productive Pedgagogies framework that is advocated by Education Queensland.
  • Registration. After three years of running this unit it will be time to write up the final unit design, as well as a ‘scope and sequence’, so that the unit is ready to be passed on. At school we called this ‘registration’ – when the Head Teacher would check out your unit plans at the end of the semester and ensure you met your learning objectives. Here at uni there are other other mechanisms in place, but the Head Teacher check isn’t one of them. And official changes are made so sllllloooowwwlyyyy. So, for my own piece of mind, I’m going to put my own unit through a final tick-and-flick, then prepare my reflections and field notes for scholarly publication and sharing.

I’ve included below another classroom poster I’ve made, a visual resource to support my students’ engagement with the Productive Pedagogies – feel free to use and share (though note that the values/opinions expressed on it about alignment with ‘prac’ are only my own POV!).

Now…deep breath!

And once more into the breach!

Productive Pedagogies for Prac (image by Kelli, CC-BY-SA)

Productive Pedagogies for Prac (image by Kelli, CC-BY-SA)

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Coming up for air

Hi folks – it’s been a bit quiet here on the blog, I know.
All I can say is … omg MARKING!

I have always had an interest in assessment, but this semester has made really clear to me how dire the situation is with our current practices.

I don’t want to ‘buy out’ my marking (i.e.pay someone else to do it for me) but I feel like I am wasting so much of my time at the grindstone, like a machine, writing the same lines over and over in delightful pink pen in the margins of my students’ work.

“Check the APA style guide for rules about how to format this”
“Formal essays require shorter paragraphs than this”
“Avoid rhetorical questions – make strong statements instead”
“Use your introduction to tell me what your main points will actually be, not to explain the structure of your work”
“Don’t use a quote as a sentence on it’s own – introduce it i.e. ‘Sawyer (year) explains that…’”
“You have not included reference to any unit readings in this rationale”

I worry about RSI. I worry about carpal tunnel! Marking more tasks electronically next semester will hopefully fix the hand ache, but what about the mind ache??

I’m not alone – every teacher reading this knows what I mean.

What are we going to do about it?

Portland Oregon & VA exam 46 – CC-BY-2.0 Flickr image by Parker Knight

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My schmick new assessment design!

Teaching at university can be tricky, mostly due to the emphasis on summative assessment.

Since starting this position in 2010 I have been attempting to infuse the unit I coordinate with greater amounts of project-based learning. However, in a context where students have little time or incentive to engage with classwork that isn’t formally assessed, it has been hard to reward things like student project work.

After three semesters of teaching English Curriculum Studies 1 I decided that a radically new assignment was in order. 

Background:

Students used to do:

  • Assignment 1 – Personal teaching philosophy statement and resource analysis
  • Assignment 2 – Report on video lessons and learner needs observed
  • Assignment 3 – Junior secondary English lesson plans

All of these assessment pieces were completed individually – no collaboration was required and no public audience was utilised.

From this semester onward, students now do:

  • Assignment 1 – Personal teaching philosophy statement and resource analysis (same as before)
  • Assignment 2 – Junior secondary English lesson plans (now completed in small groups of 2 or 3)
  • Assignment 3 – A range of CHALLENGE TASKS published in a portfolio <– SCHMICK NEW TASK!

The New Task:

Many of the key ideas about inquiry-based and cooperative learning that I am working with can be found in a book extract provided by Edutopia: Teaching for Meaningful Learning by Brigid Barron & Linda Darling-Hammond.

Here is a brief extract – some words about project-based learning:

“Project-based learning involves completing complex tasks that typically result in a realistic product, event, or presentation to an audience. Thomas (2000) identifies five key components of effective project-based learning. It is: central to the curriculum, organized around driving questions that lead students to encounter central concepts or principles, focused on a constructive investigation that involves inquiry and knowledge building, student-driven (students are responsible for designing and managing their work), and authentic, focusing on problems that occur in the real world and that people care about.” (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 3; my emphasis)

What I’ve done in my new task is to create a poetry ‘project’ as one of 10 ‘challenges’ that students need to complete.

After trialling a poetry project last semester, I know that students see value in, and engage with this kind of learning.  But, at the end of the day, students felt let down because the work they put into their projects didn’t ‘count’ towards their final grade.

Once I started messing around with a new assignment that gave them credit for their project work, it was too hard not to design a whole suite of ‘challenges’ that they could choose to take up! So, that’s what I’ve done – students decide what grade they want to get, and complete the number of challenges needed to obtain it.

Challenge-based learning‘ as a term has not gained as much traction as ‘project-based learning’, but I think there is something to be said for the difference in terminology. In my teaching context, students are completing a ‘project’, but there is a minimum standard they have to reach to be able to ‘pass’ the assessment. Also, there is less focus on a ‘driving question’ than a PBL task would have – more of an emphasis on the products needing to be made. Hence my use of the term ‘challenge’ in the overall task.

The Challenges:

OK, the easiest way to show you the assignment is to share copies of my assignment sheets:

CLB018-CLP408 challenge portfolio task

A matrix of challenge tasks is provided for students to choose from in assignment 3. 

Students will receive a grade for Assignment 3 based on the number of challenges completed: 

  •  4 CHALLENGES COMPLETED = PASS
  •  6 CHALLENGES COMPLETED = CREDIT 
  •  8 CHALLENGES COMPLETED = DISTINCTION 
  •  10 CHALLENGES COMPLETED = HIGH DISTINCTION! 

CHALLENGE TASK peer assessment sheet

Note the peer assessment component of this task. This is something I am especially proud of, for a number of reasons! Not only am I hoping that this will result in a more sustainable marking practice for me (I will be checking/validating the peer marking, but no re-doing it), but it is also a strategy for getting the students to learn how to share their work and act as ‘critical friends’. I also think that having anopther preservice teacher assess your work in this context can be seen as providing an ‘authentic audience’ for student work.

Reflecting:

The student portfolios for this task are due next Friday, so I’ve yet to see how this new assessment plays out in real life.

One idea I have bubbling away about the teaching methods chosen is that ‘project-based’ learning can perhaps be broken down further as being either ‘inquiry-driven’ or ‘challenge-driven’ (and maybe even a third category, ‘play-driven’). But that’s a hierarchy that I’m still thinking through…

There is a lot going on here, I realise. But I’d seriously LOVE to hear feedback from my critical friends, including any students that end up reading this post :)

If you have any questions to ask, shoot them at me too! Obviously I’m quite proud of what I’ve constructed here, but in a few weeks it will be time to reflect again on how to improve for semester 2, so as they say…bring it!

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Finding my Threshold Concepts

This semester I have been engaing in the final cycle of my teaching and learning action research project – part of what I do here at QUT as an ‘Early Career Academic’.

‘Constructing a community of practice in English Curriculum Studies 1 – online and offline’

Action research cycle:

  • Planning and fact-finding: 2010, semester 2
  • Phase 1 action: 2011, semester 1
  • Phase 2 action: 2011, semester 2
  • Phase 3 action: 2012, semester 1
  • Report findings: 2012, semester 2

The buzz term for how to ‘do’ curriculum planning here at uni is constructive alignment. Anyone else having to use this term?

Basically, constructive alignment is what you do when you make sure your assessment tasks match your learning objectives, and that your lesson materials feed into this productively. (OK, so I slipped the word ‘productively’ in just there…can you tell I’m living in Queensland? Productive pedagogies, anyone?)

So, the first two phases of my action research have been all about getting the assessments to work for me and my unit, English Curriculum Studies 1. I inherited a bunch of learning objectives when I took on coordination of this unit, but in the end I found that the assessment tasks weren’t engaging students in the ways I knew could happen. In the ways I was sure could happen, anyway. All of the assessment pieces have now been modified or replaced (not allowed to change the learning objectives) and things are aligning much more constructively…

The last piece in the puzzle that I was really hoping to nut out in this third cycle is the establishment of threshold concepts for this unit.

A ‘threshold concept’ is the kind of concept that, once learned, cannot be unlearned.  Once we grasp a piece of threshold knowledge, we pass over a barrier into new territory, where everything is seen anew with different eyes.

In the (bazillion) Powerpoint presentations I sat through last year as a new academic, I picked up the importance of using a few well-chosen threshold concepts to drive a unit of work.  For teachers like me that prefer to use project-based and inquiry-based learning approaches, having a set of threshold concepts in mind that you want students to ‘get’ by the end of the experience looks to be an excellent anchor for lesson planning.  Although these concepts are related to the official learning objectives of the unit, they do serve a different kind of function…and I really want to settle on what mine are!

Until this week I was still struggling to come up with suitable concepts.

But now, I struggle NO MORE!

I have been working on a summary video for students to watch at the half-way point in semester, while I am away at a conference.  In the video I want to recap the main points learned from weeks 1-5 of the unit.  The process of trying to identify what the ‘big ideas’ were amongst all of the super important stuff we learned wasn’t easy.  But the process of having to present the ideas to my students (not just to my academic review panel at the end of this year…!) has really helped.

Which I guess just goes to show that even teachers need an authentic audience for their work.

Trying to keep the video short (under 5 minutes) also forced my hand – left to my own devices, I’m sure I could find plenty of threshold concepts, but you only need a few. The wording of what I’ve chosen isn’t quite right yet, but these are the six big points I have chosen:

  1. Your personal teacher identity is unique and reflects your personal experience, but will inevitably draw on many established philosophies and practices.
  2. In ‘English’ we study: semiotics, text and context.
  3. Language codes and conventions are socially constructed.
  4. Verbal/linguistic language is just one semiotic ‘code’; we also learn/teach audio, visual, spatial and gestural language.
  5. Literacy involves more than code breaking – we also make meaning, use texts functionally, and critique texts.
  6. Multiliteracies pedagogies are currently favoured in English curriculum theory.

I suspect this is still too many for 6 weeks, but there you go.  We’ll see.  Once I’ve finished the video I’ll post it up here on the blog. I still have to add the narration, but most of the images are in. I’m using Movie Maker and Audacity as my tools of the trade…I hope the students have time to watch the bloody thing! But even if they don’t, I’m glad I went through this process and am happy that I’ve found some threshold concepts to settle on, for now. And, with any luck, a shiny new resource at the end I can be proud of. Fingers crossed!

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Mastery, risk-taking and play

This post is a culmination of a week or so of talking about play-based education.  If that’s its official term for it?  I don’t know.  I must declare my rookie status in this field, which means you should feel really free to jump into the comment s section below and school me on what I’ve missed!

Thanks to @malynmawby, @vormamim, @biancah80,  and @benpaddlejones for their ideas via twitter and email. You can read more about @malynmawby ‘s experiences with play-based learning here, here and here.

Play-based Learning: Another PBL?

My current interest in project-based learning has also put me in contact with the terms challenge-based learning and problem-based learning.

Despite these terms being used fairly liberally (along with inquiry-based learning), I don’t seem to often come across material that explores the differences or similarities between these terms.  I mean, I’m sure we could all take guesses about it, based on what we know about the words chosen; what is a project? what is a challenge? a problem? an inquiry?

Well, while you’re pondering it all, here is some more information to add to the learning theory soup.

States of Play

An overview of the elements of play presented by the National Institute for Play (based in California) outlines seven “patterns of play”:

  1. attunement play
  2. body play and movement
  3. object play
  4. social play (including ‘rough and tumble’ play and ‘celabratory’ play)
  5. imaginative and pretend play
  6. storytelling-narrative play
  7. transformative-integrative and creative play

And here is a really excellent TED Talk by Stewart Brown, who argues the physiological importance of play:

After listening to Stewart’s TED talk, the idea that I keep coming back to is this:

If the purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play. (Stewart Brown, TED Talk 2008, at ~6 mins)

Which begs the question: by trying to pin down a definition of ‘play-based learning’ to use in my curriculum theorising, am I contributing to WRECKING IT?

Play in the curriculum

In my quest for answers I came across some interesting material relating to motivation and mastery.

This puts me back into territory that is a little bit psych-y, and I know such approaches don’t always sit well with post-structuralist curriculum types like myself. But I resist that ;)

Writer and researcher Katherine Cushman lead a Practice Project for the non-profit group ‘What Kids Can Do’ (http://firesinthemind.org/about/) asking the question ‘what do kids already know about and do well?’.

When adults openly explore our genuine questions about getting to mastery—and include young people’s knowledge and experiences in that exploration—we model the expert’s habit of taking intellectual and creative risks. We demonstrate that we, too, always have things we need to understand better, and things we need to practice. We teach kids to approach any lack of understanding as a puzzle: stretching the limits of their competence, continually testing new possibilities and seeing how they work out. As they expand their knowledge and skills, young people, like us, will discover even more challenging puzzles they want to tackle—not just outside school, but as part of it. (K. Cushman, Fires in the Mind p.10)

In light of this, play strikes me as a form of ‘intellectual and creative risk taking’, essential to building the habits of mind and the resilience needed to seek out and tackle new puzzles.

Who is playing?

Concepts about transformative play have been utilised by the Quest Atlantis project, and a lot of my Tweeps are currently going bananas for Minecraft. These are rich sites and communities tapping into discourses about educational play.

However, I rarely hear any critical views about play or games, and I guess that’s what makes me itch to interrogate this field.

The reflexive dilemma

Listening to a talk by Julian Sefton-Green during his recent visit to QUT, I was conscious of the points he made about the field of ‘out of school learning’, which often involves elements of play.

His research has found distinctions between school and out-of-school learning tended to set up binaries that actually maintained the boundaries around ‘official’ curriculum, and other project and play based activities happening outside of schools (the binary of formal and non-formal learning, for example). His review of the literature showed how debate about not-school environments in the UK is often bound up with techno-utopianism and generalisations about the public school system.

In relation to this, he poses the ‘reflexive dilemma’ that we face in thinking about all of this. That is, the more we reflect on learning experiences, the more we formalise them. In our quest to ‘optimise’ all learning experiences, the learning is more carefully arranged and disciplined.

Which brings me right back to that TED talk – by naming ‘play based learning’ and trying to give play an official role in curriculum, do we run the risk of ruining play? Will the act of ‘doing play’ become just another ‘strategy’ for learning?

In short, how can we develop play as a habit of the mind without over thinking it and taking the fun out of the act of play? And, will defining the difference between all of the different PBLs etc help us in this endeavor, or just get in the way by drawing boundaries that don’t need to be there?

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A transformative digital literacies pedagogy: Thomas (2011)

Thanks to @malynmawby @benpaddlejones and @Vormamim for engaging in tweety-chat today about play-based learning and transformational play.

There was an article that I wanted to post the full reference to – this one by Angela Thomas (@anyaixchel)

Thomas, A. (2011) Towards a transformational digital literacies pedagogy. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy. Vol. 6 pp. 89-101

You can see the abstract for the paper with my own annotations, above.

In it she argues that there are:

a number of significant characteristics of digital literacy that are imperative to include in a pedagogy of digital literacy in order to make it a transformational pedagogy.  These include: explicit understandings of multimodality, opportunities for play and experimentation, participating within communities of practice, and critical engagement with text.

I had picked this article up to read Angela’s findings about digital pedagogy, but it was a timely read.  I am a big fan of the work of Paulo Freire, and of his work to empower communities through literacy.  By bringing in Freire’s notion of ‘transformative pedagogies’ this article reaffirmed the need for critical, participatory and dialogic practices to be woven into the digital learning landscape.

I’d love to hear of other readings and resources along these lines, if you know of any…?

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Next Stop: AERA! and AARE, and AATE…

When you have a research paper to present, choosing the right conference to take it to is important.

I have long been affiliated with the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE). When I first started out as a postgrad student, I used to go to their conferences to present papers, and I even was elected as student rep. to the Executive Committee.  I also had one of those awful experiences of being a small fish in a giant pond, and having only three people turn up for me to deliver my paper to.   Devo’d…In the end I ultimately stopped being involved in AARE because I needed to narrow my focus and concentrate on English curriculum teaching and scholarship.

Since then I’ve been going to the annual conference of the Australian Association for Teachers of English (AATE) – every year since 2004!  And this year is no exception – I’ll be in Melbourne for the AATE conference in December (will you?).  Only, for the first time in awhile, I’ll be heading to the AARE conference too, in Hobart the week before.  With more skills in networking under my belt, and a clearer direction for engaging with the ‘special interest groups’, I’m feeling really positive about reconnecting with AARE and sharing my PhD findings there.

For me though, as far as big, generalist conferences go, AARE was always plenty big enough – and having developed an instinct to narrow my scope rather than broaden it, I didn’t think I would ever attend the EVEN BIGGER, EVEN BROADER, international ‘annual meeting’ of the American Educational Research Association (AERA)

But, attend it I am!

Both the paper and group session I submitted have been accepted to AERA 2012, which will be held in Vancouver in April next year:

Curriculum Change and Resistance: Challenges Identified During the Implementation of An Expansive State English Curriculum.

This paper presents the findings of a doctoral study that undertook a content analysis of a corpus of curriculum texts, news reports and case interviews with teachers during a period of curriculum change in the Australian state of New South Wales.

Producing the young citizen in texts of families, neighbourhoods and nations

This session critically analyses popular fiction, nonfiction and television texts for children and young people focusing on sexuality, sexual safety, bullying and heroism. Each of the selected texts can be understood as a pedagogical apparatus that works to instantiate children and young people as particular subjects and objects of knowledge. (with Gannon, Lampert, Bethune and Gonick)

So, let’s count ‘em up: AATE and AARE in December; I already went to ALEA and IFTE earlier in the year; AERA in 2012.

That’s FIVE amazing conferences in 12 months!

And one BUSY girl :/

Totally worth it :)

(By the way…’what’s with all the four letter acronyms starting with A’, I hear you ask?  Tell me about it!  Took the first year of my research degree to decipher this shiz!  And the kind of ugly websites of AERA and AARE…you can tell all of their energy goes into research!)

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PhD COMPLETE!

Ah, the sweet sound of completion…

You are now reading the blog of someone who has completed their PhD thesis – as well as someone who has waited for examiner’s results, completed the required emendations, and had those emendations accepted!

Next stop: GRADUATION!

Because it’s not polite to ask someone how long they have taken to complete, it’s not something that gets talked about a lot.  I started mine in 2003, which means that despite many deferred and part-time enrolled semesters, I’ve essentially been a research student for just over eight years.

Yes, you’re supposed to complete within four years.  And everyone who signs up for one of these damned things thinks they’ll be able to make it…but not everyone does.  In fact, only about 40% of students really reach that goal.  There are a lot of factors that influence this: the nature of the candidate, candidature, discipline and institution all come into play.  My story was one of running out of money after a few years and not having had enough done by then to carry me through the tough times that followed.

TIP: Full time teaching is NOT conducive to timely completion of a research degree.  Well, it wasn’t for me, anyway!

So, in the end, was it worth it?

If it really was such a slog, and the research indicates that my experience is not that unique, would I do it again?

Yes.  Yes, I would.

In the end, it is really clear that writing a thesis (a PhD dissertation is generally 80,000 -  100,000 words long) is the ultimate ‘research apprenticeship’.  You learn (sometimes the hard way) to manage your time, to overcome writer’s block, to situate yourself within a field of expertise, and to write for an academic audience.  You learn to be rigorous in your chosen research methods, and you learn how to discern the quality of others’ work.  You learn to cast off doubt about using your own voice, for better or worse.

You also end up with a major piece of research that you can stand by, and put forward as your own – this becomes part of your currency in the academic world.

There were times when I thought I wouldn’t last the distance…without the support of my friends and family, I’m not sure if I would have.  There were times when I was so far in ‘the cave’ that I was sure everyone I knew had given up on me ever coming out again!  But they were very nice about that, and patient, and kind, and that made all the difference.

So, THANK YOU! Especially to people who read this blog and keep in contact with me online through Twitter and Facebook and the rest.  The process of public reflection, knowing that people would notice if I gave up, was something that always helped to keep me motivated.  That, and the idea of writing this very post to tell you all that I am FINALLY DONE.

x Kelli

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Pedagogy or assessment – what comes first in PBL?

So many things to blog about at the moment…transmedia and transliteracy, the Gonski review of school funding…but in the thick of Semester 2 teaching I find myself inexorably drawn back to curriculum studies.

And goddess, please bless Bianca for coming through with a new blog post about Project Based Learning (PBL) to stimulate my thinking this week!

I have been trying to work out how to formally incorporate PBL into the structure of my unit English Curriculum Studies 1This week I think I have a solution, which I’ll outline below.  But first, to answer Bianca’s question: when I proposed this structure in a comment on her blog she asked:

Did you design the assessments or the pedagogy first?

And that question, RIGHT THERE, is our chicken and egg, am I right?

Because, as Bianca rightly points out, school teachers find it very challenging to engage in “inherent ‘assessment for learning’ within the rigid ‘assessment of learning’ framework already in place”.  So, while it might seem logical that your pedagogy will determine your assessment, the ‘reality’ of teaching and learning puts this possibility beyond reach for most. 

For some schools their ‘rigid assessment of learning framework’ is tied to NAPLAN exams, for others it is focussed more on Year 12 exit credentials.  And in schools that claim not to be driven by external assessments, rigid assessment frameworks can still be constructed by Heads of Department (or others) who seek to place multiple additional constraints on teachers’ planning (e.g. “you MUST have a half yearly exam!”, “every Year 9 class must write an essay in term 1″)

The curriculum places constraints on assessment and pedagogy too, and I could start talking about the Australian Curriculum here.  Instead I’ll show you what I built for the university semester context, and try to answer Bianca’s question from there.

Here is the draft outline for my unit in 2012:

  • Weeks 1-4 focus: Inquiry based learning (assessment = critical/reflective essay) assessment as learning
  • Weeks 5-7 focus: Project based learning (assessment = project + review of pedagogy used in class project) assessment for learning
  • Weeks 8-9 focus: Challenge based learning (assessment = make lesson plans for English) assessment of learning

I can safely say that for this unit, I started with the assessment.  Literally, I have adopted an existing unit with existing assessment pieces that take at least 6 months to get formally changed.  So, while I have been tweaking each assessment piece each semester, I’ve been teaching it for 18 months now and a full overhaul of the structure is now needed to fully incorporate PBL and other constructivist approaches.

Beyond that initial point of departure though, I have oscillated between a pedagogy focus and an assessment focus each time I plan and change something in the unit.

I would say my major points of development around pedagogy and assessment were:

  1. Reviewing the balance of assessment FOR learning and OF learning in the existing unit.  In the university context it is only possible to mandate summative assessment…so I had to reconsider my approach to build a learning environment where the learning process was valued.
  2. Reviewing the first summative assessment, which was a critical essay, gave me the idea to make the relevance or ‘connectedness’ of the opening weeks of the unit more apparent.  Students now do a range of inquiry-based activities to help them engage in the scholarly material, motivated by the need to interrogate their own perspective.
  3. Activities planned for the first few weeks of the unit were redesigned around a new assessment that focussed on the students personal teaching philosophy.  This increased the potential of the assessment to be FOR learning, I thought.
  4. Teaching the new opening to the unit was really affirming, but showed up the weaknesses in the pedagogy of weeks 5-7.  A PBL approach was therefore introduced to ‘liven up’ this part of the unit.  This coincides with the time in semester when students begin having heaps of assignments due, and I felt they needed a pedagogical experience that was less ‘intense’, and enjoyable enough to get them through the ‘hump weeks’!
  5. The PBL appraoch worked really well, but the students put a lot of work in that wasn’t rewarded in assignment grades.  So I am now redesigning assignment 2 to include ‘project participation’ criteria so students can get their work on this counted in their final grade.
  6. aaand…MOST recently: because the final assessment of creating alesson plans really has proven a ‘challenge’, I’m going to use this to explore Challenge based learning.  I see this as being the same as Project based learning, but where the outcome does not have to be presentation to an audience.  Instead, the project outcome must ‘meet the challenge’.  Think Mythbusters :)

You can see how thinking about assessment and pedagogy are totally bound together – thinking about one always raises questions for the other.  Or, it should!

I’m still searching for material that can explain the realtionship between Inquiry, Project and Challenge based learning.  I’ve tried to use them here in a complementary way, but tbh it’s been tough to find sources that relate the approaches to one another.  I started off this process thinking they were slightly interchangable.  Now I can see that each one is informed by a respect for ‘learning by doing’, but has its own unique flavour.  But are these three the only three?  Do they sit in a hierarchy of some kind?  Are there other ‘Something-B-Ls’ out there that I don’t know about??

Who knows.

If you do, please add a comment!  (I hope this helps someone out there!)

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