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Why I still blog

This is my ninth year of blogging and I have just reached my 200th subscriber.

When I began blogging in June 2008 I managed to post nine posts in the first month. That’s heaps! I went back to browse them and was surprised – that I had written so much, but also that they were so short. These days I feel like everything I have to say needs so much explaining, so much backstory. It’s an occupational hazard. Writing lectures and research papers is wordy work, and that has truly seeped into all the other genres in my life.

Last weekend I was in Melbourne for VidCon, the first ever in Australia. It was amazing! More on that another time. And I met an excellent crowd of YouTube creators who are into education, and we had long and interesting talks. Getting to know each other, it was only when someone mentioned they have been blogging for a long time that I caught myself having not mentioned my blog. And I paused for thought. Then realised I hadn’t really, truly grasped the similarities between blogging (in which I am an old hand) and vlogging (in which I am a noob), until that moment.

(You mean I can transfer all this knowledge there? That is so darn handy right now.)

So, to articulate it for myself and others, here are the three big reasons why I still blog:

  1. I use the blog as a professional journal to reflect on my practice.
  2. I like to make a lot of my ideas and resources visible to others, because I trust the network and believe we are better when we share.
  3. The blog is like a pensieve. Or a portable hard drive for my mind.

ICYMI – in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Albus Dumbledore describes the penseive like this:

“I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”

digital collage made by me using polyvore.com

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What does poetry mean to me? #PBL unit

This semester I am attempting to demonstrate project based learning (PBL) in action by giving both of my classes an extra-curricular project to work on.

(More about whether these projects are in-or-extra to ‘the curriculum’ in an upcoming post…)

Pre-service teachers in my 3rd year English curriculum studies class are themselves focusing on how to use a PBL approach to design learning for junior secondary English. Their final assignment involves working in groups of 3-4 to create a PBL unit of work and assessment task/criteria sheets.

So, while we are learning about PBL, we are also doing PBL. And here is the project flyer:

image: created by Kelli McGraw, produced using Canva.com

We’re in Week 6 of a 9-week semester, and I already know that exploring ‘ways of speaking poetry’ is going to get squeezed out. That’s OK. My original goal of using the explore phase to offer a ‘smorgasbord’ of experiences has been usurped by getting to know the students and their needs – and they need to spend time going deeper into ways of reading and writing poetry. That’s cool – one of the things I am proud to model for my PSTs is they way plans have to change once real humans are involved. This need to teach in a responsive, agile way is understandably one of the things that new teachers find confronting, but ultimately it’s what effective teaching requires.

I’m at that critical stage of the project where I’m looking at the number of lessons left vs work that needs to get done to complete the project – eek!

My original plan was to get enough poetry artefacts to fill an entire display cabinet, but thankfully the cabinet has SHELVES, so our new goal is to fill 1-2 shelves only. Not a bad result it turns out, as it gives me space to run this project again next year and fill the cabinet progressively instead of all at once.

image: hallway cabinet near my office

The whole project is supposed to take 6 weeks. By the second week I wished I had twice as much time! But that’s how teaching rolls, eh – PBL or no.

Will post pics of the finished cabinet display at the end of semester 🙂

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What I miss about HSC English

Times are changing for senior assessment here in Queensland, and senior English has been radically re-written.

To catch you up if you’re just tuning in to this, some notable changes for English in QLD are:

  • Reduction of summative assessment in Year 12 from 6 tasks to 4 tasks.
  • The 4 tasks in Year 12 are all worth 25% each, and one of them is an external exam.
  • There are five courses in the English suite: English, EAL, Essential English (replacing ‘English Communication’), and Literature (a new course in QLD). The fifth course English and Literature Extension, as well as the ‘applied’ subject Essential English, are still in draft.
  • The external exam for English and Literature courses will be a single ‘analytical essay’ responding to unseen questions on their chosen text.
  • Abolition of the existing Queensland Core Skills Test (the current method for scaling and moderating in-school subject rankings).
  • We’re getting a prescribed text list (this is big news)!

The status and relationship of the five English courses is seen in Figure 1 of the English syllabus:

QCAA English pathways map – syllabus screenshot p2

There are a couple of things I think the Queensland design has captured that make it an improvement on the HSC design I am familiar with from NSW.

For starters, the external exam is only one essay (not 2 x 2 hour papers), and it’s only worth 25% of the final grade. My hope is that reducing the weight of the external exam will see Queensland take up fewer exam-driven practices and less anxiety for students.

The next area that is a win is the retention of our work-and-community English course – now called Essential English – as an ‘applied’ course. Unfortunately the equivalent ‘English Studies’ course in NSW has been made ATAR eligible, which based on historical trends will see an over-enrolment in that course.

But wow there are some things that I miss about HSC English.

  • I miss the way each module has a clear direction for the work – it’s a close study, a conceptual study, or a comparative study etc.
  • I miss being able to choose what my internal assessments will be and how much weight they’ll have.
  • I miss the terminology of ‘related texts’ and the sense that something has to be studied in a certain amount of depth to count as a core/prescribed text.
  • I miss Macbeth and To Kill A Mockingbird being mostly left alone for junior English.
  • I miss ‘persuasive’ being uncoupled from ‘speech’.
  • I miss mandatory inclusion of multimodal assessment.

Watching both states redevelop senior English at the same time has been eye-opening. Lots of comparison work to come.

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Dear Bianca: Semester 2 is about to start and…

…and I had promised you I would write back. This is probably going to be about my speed. Unless we pick up pace. Time will tell.

I honestly don’t know anyone who has gone to those research coursework seminars and felt differently. The stuff is always too general, but you’ve hit the nail on the head – it’s hard to do otherwise. With adult learners, that is.  Though I’m surprised you didn’t get credit for already doing similar courses, that’s a shame. The flipside is though, that you also typically learn something interesting or important at those things, even if you don’t know until way down the track how relevant some tidbit will turn out to be.

Like, that activity you described, where images are used as metaphors to get people talking about their feelings…that’s a cool idea. I plan to steal that. Thank you Sandy Shuck.

So, you seem pretty confident about conceptual frameworks, but can I ask you this – it’s the question I asked at the end of your blog post. Do you know the difference between a theoretical and a conceptual framework, and can you explain it? I had not honestly given enough though to the difference between the two. I looked back on my own thesis and found that I sectioned things out like this:

Chapter: Research Design.

Subheadings: ‘research issue and key questions’, ‘research framework’, ‘theoretical orientation’, ‘methodology’ and ‘methods’.

It got me wondering whether I just used non-standard headings for some things. That sounds like me. But also whether my ‘research framework’ was more or less conceptual or theoretical. One thing I do often wonder is how anyone can have a conceptual framework before having reviewed the relevant research literature. Surely it should go: lit review first, THEN select some research questions based on gaps in the field, THEN choose conceptual/theoretical frameworks and methodologies to best answer those questions, and THEN select methods suitable to collect and analyse data.

I wonder if you would like to share a part of your research proposal. I’m curious how you wrote up the bit about researching in your own school, and glad to hear you were satisfied with the direction you had worked on with Jane. Is it a…practitioner inquiry? case study? …?

Um, tips. You have to write. So write me back. It’s not a kind of writing you can rush. It’s good to have an audience in mind, so write me back.

In the spirit of that, I am also going to tell you in this letter about a thought I’ve had recently, and that I’m presently investigating for a research paper later this year. I’ve been thinking about the specifics of PBL and what the advantages of project-based vs other inquiry approaches (problem-based, challenge-based etc.) might be, in relation to democratic education. I still have no interest in trying to argue that project-based learning is ‘better than’  any other particular type of learning inquiry, but I do suspect it may be more democratic. This is based on the way PBL encourages and provides students with tools to frame their learning in the context of socially and textually authentic, personally relevant driving questions. At a gold standard it also incorporates opportunities for students to exercise choice and voice, and work toward presentation of a public product. Positioning students as knowledge creators, not just knowledge consumers, is vital here.

Here’s where you might take up the Dewey reading sooner rather than later, because that’s what I’m revising and I could use a buddy. What do you think PBL has to do with democratic education, or freedom? A question for another day maybe! I’d also like to attempt reading some of Garth Boomer’s work about English curriculum specifically, but because about to start semester 2, reading time is limited.

Your friend,

K.

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Teaching and work-life balance

This week I’ve given my pre-service teachers this ‘wicked problem’ to start a conversation about work-life balance:

Imagine it is dinner time on Tuesday and you have three things to do before school tomorrow:

  1. Grade papers
  2. Meet a family/friend obligation
  3. Sleep

You only have time to accomplish 2/3 of these things.

Which thing do you drop?

The decisions and justifications that ensued were sufficiently terrifying. Don’t worry – I also had an excellent follow up discussion about all the joy and fulfillment that teaching brings to your life…

Overwhelmingly, students chose to drop sleep (if they were the kind of person who could handle that kind of thing), or family/friend obligations. Many justified their choice by explaining that family and friends would be understanding, and they’d ‘make it up to them’ later.

Some home truths I needed to explain after we had our discussion included:

  • This is a wicked problem that most teachers (and ALL beginning teachers) face down pretty much every single night. And every weekend. Basically, in every moment of spare time.
  • You can only run on a few hours sleep a night for so long. Driving while overtired can be as bad as driving drunk. Your body will kick your butt come holiday time and you WILL crash. You will also cope less well with this as you age.
  • Your friends and family will only put up with being neglected for so long. They will get tired of coming second best. Many will move on as a result. Where will that leave you?
  • The assertion that “I will not get myself into this situation” is naive. A beautiful and important goal, but naive.
  • The claim that you will get those papers knocked over in a couple of hours ignores the reality of many teachers’ work. English teachers especially mark long pieces of writing – like essays and short stories. You’re looking at around 30 mins per paper, so if you have even half a class to do, you’re looking at 7.5 hours marking work.
  • When you’re not marking, you’re planning. There’s. Always. Something.

The follow up sharing has come thick and fast.

Here is an explanation of the Four Burners Theory that one student shared. She wondered if maybe women generally feel more pressure than men to keep all four burners running, and burn out as a result.

One student shared information about music that is purposefully constructed to reduce stress.

This article bemoaning ‘mindset’ culture and the way ‘good teaching’ is conflated with ‘tired teachers’ serendipitously came across my feed that same week.

And, just to prove that when a message is needed, it comes from all angles…Steven Suptic even made a video that same week about being BURNED OUT from making videos.

I’d love to hear from teaching colleagues about their strategies for solving the wicked problem above. Or their struggles in attempting the same.

Postscript, 12th May: And wow, this post from Tomaz Lasic this week with advice for new teachers is solid gold.

 

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Inquiry and learning: Kath Murdoch TED Talk

This is a TED Talk that had popped up on my feed a few times, and now I’ve watched it, I can see why.

What if more classrooms were habitats in which wonder thrived?

What if classrooms were places that children knew their questions would be heard?

What if it was more exciting in a classroom to not know something, than it was to know something?

Kath Murdoch talks about the power of curiosity in classrooms:

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Examination and Assessment

The following is an extract from my PhD thesis, part of a series I am publishing on this blog discussing the background of some contested territory in English curriculum.

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Examination and Assessment

While our definitions of what the subject ‘English’ is have shifted over the years, it is worthwhile considering whether attitudes to examination and assessment have shifted as much, especially considering the reported impact of standardised exam-based assessment on the realised delivery of the intended curriculum and the construction of student identity (cf. Gale & Densmore, 2000; Kohn, 1999). The assessment and reporting of learning is one major way in which the school system retains power over the knowledge that students are deemed to have acquired (Foucault, 1977), in particular when ‘technicist’ forms of assessment such as traditional written exams are employed as these tend to “concentrate upon a narrow view of student achievement” (Marsh, 1997, p.56). In this final area of commonly contested territory I overview these broad ideas about the role of assessment and examination in the school system, as well as more specific thinking about the NSW curriculum landscape and about assessment in HSC English.

In a research project looking at the link between examinations and inequality in Australia in particular, Teese (2000) explores the ways in which choices about syllabuses and their examination result in increased social power for a privileged group that are more likely to gain academic success. The research project documented the way in which students with the “fewest family advantages entered schools with the fewest facilities and encountered the least experienced staff” (p.31) resulting in a low level of academic security for such students. Teese also argues the existence of a ‘curriculum hierarchy’, in which it is not just “any subjects that occupy the top levels of the curriculum, but those that give the greatest play to the economic power, cultural outlook and life-styles of the most educated populations” (p.197).

In the specific case of English, and of particular interest for research examining the NSW HSC English syllabus and its inclusion of a broader range of texts for study, Teese argues that the removal of canonical texts from the curriculum does not “free students from the cultural world in which Shakespeare was venerated” (p.45). Examination requirements themselves can also be seen as discriminating between “sophisticated” and “pedestrian” styles of written response (a phenomenon that is also explored in the work of Rosser, 2002), preferring responses that demonstrate not just a mastery of skills and content knowledge, but also showcase creativity and moral sensibility. Green makes a similar point in his discussion of the influence of postmodernism on advancing English teaching for critical consciousness and change, explaining that “the emergence of a more radically and socially-critical version of English teaching along these lines is still linked to particular, and arguably limited, understanding of culture and society” (Green, 1995, p.405).

Resources such as the OECD scenarios for future schooling discussed at the outset of this chapter provide one avenue for holistically pursuing curriculum change that is firmly embedded in a larger plan for system-wide change. Each of the six scenarios created by the OECD include description of four integral facets of schooling: ‘learning and organisation’; ‘management and governance’; ‘resources and infrastructure’; and ‘teachers’. Decisions relating to assessment in schooling fall under the area of learning and organisation, and systems where “curriculum and qualifications are central ideas of policy, and student assessments are key elements of accountability” (OECD, 2001, p.1) are described as part of the bureaucratic school system that forms the ‘status quo’ (scenario 1a). In this scenario the bureaucracy encourages uniformity, and is resistant to radical change – this is consistent with the findings of Green and Teese who identify curriculum hierarchies surrounding both content and assessment as barriers to realising change in the English curriculum.

While technicist forms of assessment such as traditional written examinations and mass standardised assessment are currently embedded in the educational landscape, diversity in student achievement is recognised through other discourses in assessment policy, for example in employing a distinction between summative and formative assessment. NSW curriculum and policy documents refer to these as ‘assessment of learning’, and ‘assessment for learning’ respectively and these terms are defined by the Curriculum Corporation:

Assessment of learning is assessment for accountability purposes, to determine a student’s level of performance on a specific task or at the conclusion of a unit of teaching and learning. The information gained from this kind of assessment is often used in reporting.

Assessment for learning, on the other hand, acknowledges that assessment should occur as a regular part of teaching and learning and that the information gained from assessment activities can be used to shape the teaching and learning process.
(Curriculum Corporation, website accessed May 18, 2006)

This distinction however, while shifting the focus of certain forms of assessment to acts of learning rather than accountability, does not address concerns about curriculum hierarchy, or of narrow (academic) visions for the aims of schooling.

Another important contribution to the field of assessment discourse is the notion of authentic learning, or authentic assessment. In exploring what implications this approach has to curriculum, Marsh explains that “authentic assessment encompasses far more than what students learn as measured by standardised tests or even by ordinary teacher-made tests. Authenticity arises from assessing what is most important, not from assessing what is most convenient.” (1997, p.56) Students who are learning in an environment of authenticity will undertake tasks that are more context-bound and more practical than formal exams, and which focus on challenging students by requiring analysis, integration of knowledge and invention (Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Falk, 1995). Authentic assessment practices most closely align with the learning and organisation features of the OECDs scenario of ‘Re-schooling’, where more explicit attention is given to non-cognitive outcomes, and there is a strong emphasis on non-formal learning (scenario 2a) and quality norms replace regulatory approaches (scenario 2b). It also features in the first ‘De-schooling’ scenario (3a) where learning networks are focused on local community needs, however social inequalities are predicted in the second of these scenarios (3b) where the market determines a new educational hierarchy.

In NSW the Quality Teaching Framework is provided as a model for planning and reflecting on curriculum content choices and pedagogy. The framework, which was largely derived from the ‘Productive Pedagogies’ that were developed and implemented in Queensland as a result of longitudinal research on school reform, formally underpins teaching practice in NSW public schools by guiding teachers in the incorporation of a range of pedagogical elements in their ‘Quality Teaching’ practice by focussing on the intellectual quality in a lesson, the development of a quality learning environment, and the significance of the material learned to the lives of students. While the Quality Teaching Framework is presented as a guide to pedagogy, the implications for assessment are that although technicist forms of assessment are not precluded, pedagogic elements such as providing ‘problematic knowledge’, ‘engagement’, ‘student direction’, ‘cultural knowledge’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘connectedness’ are more closely aligned with authentic assessment practices that flow from authentic, context-bound learning.

QTF table

Table: Dimensions and elements within the Quality Teaching Framework (NSW DET, 2003)

 

Such aims to provide a quality learning environment in NSW stand in stark contrast to accounts of high-stakes testing in international contexts. In an account of assessment in the context of the 1970s, Dixon explains that in the U.K. especially “the tradition…is for preparation for the specialised uses of language demanded by the examination to be fed back into the normal course…the examination itself begins to look quite normal, and English becomes a weird kind of game”, and he also quotes an observation made by Walter Loban at the 1966 Dartmouth Conference: “the curriculum in the secondary school inevitably shrinks to the boundaries of evaluation; if your evaluation is narrow and mechanical, this is what the curriculum will be” (Dixon, 1975, p.93).

In more recent research on English teachers’ rhetoric and practice, Bousted (2000) confirms that English teachers in the U.K. continue to view timed examinations as “[limiting] the opportunities for pupils to formulate a personal response to a literary text” (p.13). Teachers interviewed and observed for the study also argue that exam-based assessment had led to the adoption of poor pedagogical practices, such as rote learning and the concentration on a narrow range of curriculum content (p.14). Research by Darling-Hammond in the U.S. found that even when authentic assessment practices such as performance-based rather than standardised testing were employed, the continued use of assessment results to ‘sort students and sanction schools’ rather than to ‘support student-centred teaching’ resulted in the perpetuation of social inequity (Darling-Hammond, 1994, p.25).

Whether authentic learning and assessment, and a balance of assessment for and of learning is something that is realised in the NSW HSC English classroom to support student-centred teaching is one aspect of the curriculum explored later in this dissertation through analysis of the collected data. Recent research on Year 12 students in NSW by Ayres, Sawyer and Dinham (1999) suggests that high-stakes examinations do not inhibit best-practice teaching, as generating understanding of the subject remains teachers’ paramount concern. This research however only involved the observation and interview of teachers of high-achieving Year 12 students (those scoring in the top 1% of the state in particular subjects), therefore, while it may be concluded that effective teaching takes place in NSW despite the high-stakes assessment environment, it is essential to consider the effects of this environment on students who do not achieve as highly.

In relation to English specifically it is significant that an account of English examinations such as Dixon’s from over 30 years ago would still come close to accurately describing the current HSC English exam, in which students complete six questions over two written exams lasting two hours each:

The range of English activities covered by present methods of examining in the U.K. and the U.S. is extremely narrow: talk and listening is often simply excluded, and drama almost always omitted…literature is examined but the texts are not available, unseen poems may not be read aloud, an eighteen-year-old in the U.S. is given 20 minutes for a composition and in the U.K. three major essays are demanded in three hours. (Dixon, 1975, pp.92-93)

Concerns about assessment and examination therefore must be considered both in relation to their impact on pedagogy, and in terms of the adequacy of the actual examination methods utilised in realising the stated purposes of the English curriculum in the senior years of high school.

To conclude this section I return to Teese’s observations of the ways in which perceptions about the ideal student are shaped by the demands of the formal examinations they are required to take. Teese (2000) argues that formal exams in Australia have required students to ‘project an image…of the young scholar-intellectual’ (p.4) as “examiners have unfailingly demanded [academic] qualities [e.g. abstraction and concentration, sensitivity to form and structure, logical and retentive abilities, and maturity of perspective and argument], whatever the circumstances under which real students have learnt” (p.194). His findings also show a relationship between the image of the ideal student informing the nature of school examinations and attributes of higher socio-economic status, as “…elements of the scholarly disposition…are linked closely to an educated life-style and arise from the continuous and informal training given by families rather than explicit and methodical instruction in school” (p. 5). By interrogating ideals that are constructed in both public and professional discourses, the research in this thesis will reflect on the functions of schooling and possible futures that are implied in the current HSC English curriculum.

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References:

Ayres, P., Dinham, S., & Sawyer, W. (1999). Successful teaching in the NSW Higher School Certificate: Summary of a research report for the NSW Department of Education and Training. Sydney: NSW DET.

Bousted, M. (2000). Rhetoric and practice in English teaching. English in Education, 34(1), 12-23.

Curriculum Corporation. Assessment for learning: What is assessment for learning? Retrieved from http://cms.curriculum.edu.au/assessment/whatis.asp

Darling-Hammond, L. (1994). Performance-based assessment and educational equity. Harvard Educational Review, 64(1), 5-30.

Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Falk, B. (1995). Authentic assessment in action. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dixon, J. (1975). Growth through English: Set in the perspective of the seventies. London: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). London: Penguin Books.

Gale, T., & Densmore, K. (2000). Just schooling: Explorations in the cultural politics of teaching. Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Green, B. (1995). Post-curriculum possibilities: English teaching, cultural politics, and the postmodern turn. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 27(4), 391-409.

Kohn, A. (1999). The schools our children deserve: Moving beyond traditional classrooms and ‘tougher standards’. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Marsh, C. J. (1997). Key concepts for understanding curriculum (A fully rev. and extended ed.). London: Falmer Press.

NSW DET. (2003). Quality teaching in NSW public schools: A classroom practice guide. Ryde: NSW Department of Education and Training Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate.

OECD. (2001). The OECD schooling scenarios in brief. Retrieved http://www.oecd.org/innovation/research/centreforeducationalresearchandinnovationceri-theoecdschoolingscenariosinbrief.htm

Rosser, G. (2002). Examining HSC English: Questions and answers. Change: Transformations in Education, 5(2), 91-109.

Teese, R. (2000). Academic success and social power: Examinations and inequality. Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.

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