How to raise NAPLAN and PISA scores in 6 easy steps

Raising student performance is really this easy!

Raising student performance is really this easy!

Jk. Hope you took the click bait.

Here is a wrap up of my favourite posts this week in response to the usual sky-is-falling in education, ‘where’s-the-bandaid solution’ sh*tshow that has followed release of the latest PISA results.

If you want some intelligent, grounded-in-reality reading about improving ‘student performance’, I highly recommend:

  1. Misty Adoniou’s piece in The ConversationAustralia’s students are failing. I blame the politicians (PS. So do I)
  2. Charlotte Pezaro’s blog post about a phonics debate that got way out of hand: The unforgivable
  3. Stewart Riddle and Bob Lingard’s piece in The GuardianPisa results don’t look good, but let’s look at what we can learn before we panic
  4. The joint statement by ALEA and PETAA: on phonics instruction in early reading development

Also a few older posts here:

  1. Eileen Honan’s March 2015 piece on the AARE blog EduResearch MattersThis is how Australian teachers are taught how to teach children to read: not just phonics
  2. Darcy Moore’s October 2016 blog post about test data and measuring outcomes: The KFC fix

Please share any or all of the posts above with your friends.

And a reminder, as always, NOT TO FEED THE TROLLS.

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How many hours in a work week?

I have been wondering what advice I should give to my pre-service teachers (PSTs) next semester before their first prac., about how many hours a week a new teacher actually works, generally speaking.

Here is my working so far:

  • Each school day (Mon-Fri) you work your teaching timetable from about 8am-3pm. Or 8.30am-3.30pm. Whatever. A roughly 8 hour day, including roll call, teaching, prep periods, playground duty, and yes a recess and lunch break when we are probably meeting with students or colleagues or…ugh, so many things eat up the lunch breaks, don’t even try to suggest that teachers enjoy many lunch breaks.
  • Let’s say you do leave straight after school, maybe you pick up your own kids and/or grab some groceries, make some dinner, eat and wait until the house is settled. Or maybe you crash into an epic nap to recover from the work day. You can probably start working again if you need to around 8pm.
  • Experienced teachers perhaps don’t do as much work at this time of night as others (unless they are also in a leadership role or have taken up extra duties/further studies – thoughts?) but beginning teachers will generally do another 2-4 hours every night to keep on top of the workload. For new English teachers this work includes reading new texts they are planning to teach, marking assessment tasks and draft work, finding and preparing resources for upcoming lessons such as AV materials and student support strategies. Let’s say an average extra 3 hours per night. But perhaps this is conservative – I know I did more, and rarely saw bedtime before 1am.
  • When teachers are new it takes them a long time to mark each piece of student work. This results in long weekend marking sessions. I’d estimate I did around an extra 4 hours each weekend day in my first couple of years of teaching. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Rarely none. Teaching has peak periods and slower patches, but truthfully there’s always something big on – half yearly or yearly exams, half yearly or yearly reports, year 11 and 12 assessment task marking sometimes double marked, year 10 and 12 formal, camp, debating finals, school musical…

That’s a 59 hour work week for new/graduate teachers.

I’d love to hear in comments below if you think I’m on or off the mark on this. 

teacher

NB. The holiday clause:

Yes teachers get about 10 weeks of non-teaching time a year. Only a few weeks over summer break of this are truly ‘on holiday’.

In the three 2-week school ‘holiday’ breaks, new teachers invariably are sick for the first of the two weeks. Ask anyone, it’s true. Also true for many experienced teachers, but new teachers are still literally building up their immune system to cope with the range of nasty illnesses around a school, so are highly susceptible. The the second week is spent doing increasing amounts each day, until a final panicked frenzy of non-stop work in the weekend before school goes back.

Am I right?

So also don’t give teachers any grief about having ‘more holidays’ because although yes having respite from face-to-face teaching for a couple of weeks is essential and so so so welcome, it is rarely a relaxing or nourishing time. You may not rack up 59 hours of work in these weeks, but you probably would rather do that than be in holiday sick bay.

You really have to have some experience under your belt and work hard and be super organised to use your holiday time wisely.

I just think it would be best if PSTs prepared themselves for this. And realised that their prac placements are likely going to be just as intense. You know?

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A nest of posts

Not sure what the collective noun for posts is (?)

Here is a nest of posts this week that have stayed with me. Not keen to post them on social media so much because argh the noise everywhere this week is deafening…

Post 1: You can’t fix education. By Hank Green on Medium.

why-hasnt-education-innovated-in-150-years-1-it-has-2-it-works

Post 2: Cultural Marxism: A uniting theory for rightwingers who love to play the victim. By Jason Wilson in The Guardian.

Post 3: The truth will set you free. By Graham Brown-Martin on Medium.

What posts have had impact for you this week?

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Assignment marking: Do the math

Something I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while is the unseen labour that goes into marking student work.

It’s semester 2 marking time in Australian universities, and I’ve just finished a stack of mine. ‘Stack’ in the figurative sense, because these were a combination of learning logs and and video blogging, all submitted and marked digitally, so there were no actual stacks of anything.

Being the audience and assessor for these students’ work was a privilege, and I don’t think any teacher should forget that having the authority to do this work is always a privilege. Sometimes it is also a joy. And it is always something that we do, knowing the important positive impact that quality feedback has on student learning.

It is a labour of love, but it is a labour to be sure.

Generally a student assignment takes 30 minutes to mark. So they say. Once I get my hand in, I can usually get through an exam response in 20 minutes (they don’t tend to require any feedback), and an essay in 30 minutes, but a set of professional plans (e.g. annotated lesson plans, units of work) takes about 45 minutes and you just can’t rush it.

A typical formula for university marking in my field is that formal assessment feedback and grading for each student should get an hour of your time each semester. That’s 30 minutes for each assignment if you only set two assignments. If you want to set more assignments, it’s on you to mark them quicker. If you’re in the edu-biz, you’ll know that this is where group presentations and short response exam papers start looking attractive.

In a typical semester I have 120 students. That’s maybe 90 students in one big unit, and 30 students in a smaller unit. As a high school teacher this was also roughly the number of students I had – roughly five classes of 25 (some with 30 students, some with closer to 20, e.g. senior classes).

Using me as an example: I set two assignments each semester. And we know that on average I plan to spend 30 minutes on each.

My semester runs for 9 weeks (because it’s followed by prac.), but they can also run for 13 weeks. You can’t really set an assignment in weeks 1 or 2. If the assignment is big, worth 40% or more, you can’t really set it in weeks 3 or 4 either.

Let’s say assignment 1 is submitted in week 5. We’re expected to get work back to students in 2-3 weeks. So they say. Which puts me giving their results back to them in week 8 (a very important deadline if the next assignment is due in week 9).

120 students

x

30 mins each

=

60 hours extra work

/over 3 weeks

=

20 hours of extra work each week.

Add about 3 hours for each of the following:

  • getting your head around the task and long times spent on first few tasks marked
  • moderation with a colleague
  • administration of grades, uploading feedback to LMS etc.

Rinse and repeat just one week later if you have set assignment 2 to be due in week 9.

So if you’ve got about 120 students on average, and managed to keep yourself limited to your 30 minutes per assignment in all units in both semesters, then you will have worked about 23 hours of overtime for 12 weeks out of the year.

I say overtime, because the whole time you’ve been doing this, life, and other work, goes on…

Classes still need teaching. Emails still need answering. You still have to front up to important meetings. Research papers still need writing, grant proposals still need submitting, you may be collecting research data and attending conferences too. If you’re a school teacher, it’s classes, emails, meetings, lesson prep, school dance supervision, year 8 camp, sport coaching, bus duty…the list goes on.

As depressing as this exercise is, I think we should all do the math on this for our own teaching context.

People need to know the reality of what teachers mean when someone asks them how they’re going and the only response they can muster is a stoney-eyed “I’ve been marking”.

Spouses and family members need to be acknowledged for how they support the teachers in their lives during marking seasons.

Teachers need to grasp the reality of their workloads so they aren’t taken by surprise each time the overtime cycle hits, and help each other learn how to manage the physical, mental and emotional toll it takes (or collectively rise up and change this system maybe, hey?).

And beginning teachers need to be aware of what they’re in for.

I am so grateful to my boss for giving me lighter teaching load this semester (just 35 students!) so I can focus on my research publications, but next semester I’ll have 120 students again. I can’t wait to meet them, but I sure do wish their assignments would mark themselves!

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If students designed their own schools…

Chatting in the mid-year break with Bianca and some other PBL-peeps, this video was recommended to me. It’s only 15 minutes long, and now I’m recommending it to you too:

The video shows what can be done in a school where teachers and leaders are prepared to really let students design their own learning. Like, really let them do it.

The students in this alternative academic program design their own Independent Learning Projects (that they report on weekly to other students), as well as their own Individual Endeavours (ambitious term-long projects, e.g. learning to play the piano and putting on a recital).

Something that interested me was, about 1 minute in, one of the students explained that in the course they look at “the four main bodies of learning”:

  • English
  • Math
  • Social Sciences
  • Natural Sciences.

Make no mistake – I was totally inspired by this video and even showed it to my students this semester. So inspired, that I changed our first assignment to be based on completion of an Independent Learning Project! But when those four areas are offered up as the “main bodies of learning”, I can already see points of tension for making this kind of program work across the board. What of the other learning areas? What of health and physical education? What of the arts? Foreign languages?

Without engaging with conversations about what is ‘essential’, ‘core’, or ‘fundamental’ in education – and working out some kind of common goal or philosophy to anchor us – I suspect alternative programs like the one featured here will (continue to) struggle to gain traction.

Although these programs aren’t (yet) the silver bullet we need to shed our teacher-centred shackles, I believe bringing these approaches into our teaching is vital.

Personal take-away thoughts:

  • Students have passions and interests that they are entitled to pursue.
  • Students are capable of designing their own learning, if we give them some parameters.
  • Students are more motivated to learn when they have some control in devising the questions for investigation.
  • Independent learning approaches seem an immediate good fit for students like this (this is is a class of nine Honours students, who self-selected into the program), but would disengaged or recalcitrant students need more scaffolding?
  • Doing my own Independent Learning Project in high school was a transformative experience for me. It was called a ‘mini thesis’ by my teacher, and I chose to study the French Revolution. I did this for just one term in just one subject – surely this is achievable across the board without rethinking our whole approach to schooling?

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Assessing soft skills in PBL

This week in class we explored the Essential Fluencies as an alternative set of ‘soft skills’ to the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.

One of my students followed up this investigation with the following juicy question:

Essential fluencies seem to structure skills within select criterion, however I am curious as to whether PBL uses these as guides (depending on the student’s PBL objective) or whether students are meant to meet all of these at different stages of their PBL (to achieve a final product)?

If this is a flexible criteria, would using a feedback grid be the most effective way of communicating the development of an idea (as it focusses less on curriculum goals, more on constructive advice)?

I decided to post my answer to part of this question here on the blog:

You’ve asked a good question about skills and standards. My understanding of PBL (and other inquiry-based models) is that assessing skills is just as important as assessing content knowledge.

There are two (opposing) axioms that relate to this:

  1. ‘What gets measured gets done’.
  2. ‘Not everything that matters can be measured; not everything that can be measured matters’.

At the moment I’m inclined to agree with the PBL movers and shakers – that developing ‘soft skills’ should be seen as a vital curriculum goal, just as important as the acquisition of discipline knowledge and technical skills. The argument here is that if we don’t find a way of measuring/assessing soft skills then teachers will continue to sideline them. Because ‘what gets measured gets done’.

The BIE crowd have developed a range of assessment rubrics for the four skills that they identify as most important to PBL specifically: creativity and innovation, presentation/communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. You can find them here:

http://www.bie.org/objects/cat/rubrics

Of course, the opposing view is that such assessment rubrics lead people to forget the second axiom ‘not everything that matters can be measured’. I know sometimes I’ve watched presentations for example that are awesome, but their awesomeness can’t be explained using the BIE assessment rubric. It’s like all rubrics actually need a criteria labelled “X factor!” for when a piece of work or project does something amazing that we didn’t plan to (or cannot) measure. And sometimes by focussing students so explicitly on assessment rubrics, they can get obsessed with how to ‘game’ the criteria to reach the highest standard, rather than taking risks in their learning to work toward a big-picture goal.

Opposing axioms.

Opposing axioms.

As there is no ‘Ultimate God of PBL’, we are free to use whatever framework we want to think about “soft skills”. We can take up the Essential Fluencies, we can take up the skills foregrounded by BIE, we can use the 4Cs proposed by p21.org, or we can use the General Capabilities from the Australian Curriculum.

But ultimately I’d argue that yes, whatever framework you choose, you should find a way of explaining to students the standards you are looking for on a range of criteria, for the particular project they’re working on. Assessment rubric sheets should be designed to make the criteria and expected standards transparent to the learner, and to aid the feed-forward process throughout a project as well as the feed-back process at the end of a project.

*****

I know I haven’t answered all of the parts of this student’s juicy question, and we’ll be talking more about it in class. It may generate another blog post. In the meantime…

  • How would you answer this student’s question?
  • Do you agree that providing assessment rubrics for soft skills is useful for learning in PBL (or otherwise)?

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PBL presentation at AATE conference

Last week I presented material on using PBL in English at the AATE national conference.

Some English teachers up here in Brisbane gave me permission to show their work there, and I also shared some key links that helped me when I was beginning my PBL journey:

The big points about PBL that I highlighted by the end of the talk were:

  • PBL involves a process of deep learning over time.
  • PBL must involve an authentic audience beyond the teacher.
  • PBL still involves small bites of teacher-delivered material, timed to support learning and project progress.
  • PBL involves students in tackling real world concerns. Relevance is key!

Finally, I offered a range of my own ideas for PBL units for English. This frustrated non-teaching teacher would be very pleased to see others use/adapt/critique these project concepts…please report back if you do!

Digital storytelling PBL concept - by Kelli

Digital storytelling PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-NC-SA)

 

Student research PBL concept - by Kelli

Student research PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-ND-SA)

 

Poetry PBL concept - by Kelli

Poetry PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-NC-SA)

 

Shakespeare PBL concept - by Kelli

Shakespeare PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-NC-SA)

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