Monday, April 30, 2012

So WHAT are you teaching?

I had a great professional conversation today with regard to WHAT we are teaching. The word on the street is that NQTs (newly qualified teachers) are coming out of college with a deep understanding of HOW children learn but not WHAT to teach them. We had a great discussion about what impact that has on the learning in a classroom and also, what has changed so much that we are left with this issue?

I am still a staunch advocate for a scheme of work for English (reading, writing) as I am certain now that there is no consistency in the teaching of word and sentence level knowledge; such as understanding synonyms, antonyms, homophones, homonyms, mnemonics; punctuation conventions such as ellipsis, parenthetic brackets/commas, colon, semi-colon, quotation marks; when to use an adverb, what a pronoun is; when to use an aside; what a limerick, free verse or Kenning is, and so on. Have children, upon reaching the completion of Year 8, been exposed to all of the text types? Have they developed an understanding of parts of speech, language conventions, author purpose, comparative language and so on?

I would stake my life on saying a resounding NO. My own 2 children are Year 7 & 8 and I can assure you, I STILL have to teach them many of these things myself. Most teachers wouldn't have a clue what a mnemonic is, let alone how to teach it, or what parenthesis is used for, or how (or even why) children should learn what the different types of poetry are. Now let me also make another thing clear here - I am certainly not one who wishes to stifle student voice. I am keen for the learning to be student-led and enjoy a wonderful classroom, which has collaboration and excitement in our shared learning environment.

But the only way to guarantee that teachers are teaching content, is to make sure that they have guidelines that give them coverage. We have a great scheme of work in the Numeracy Project for maths so why have we not managed to develop and implement a similar thing for English? It still baffles me. Do we assume (incorrectly) that because we all teach reading and writing, this means that we will somehow remember all of the components necessary for coverage?

I would be interested to know how others find this - is it really only me who is passionate about this or do other teachers find themselves as baffled by our lack of guidelines? 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Gaming and Coding With Kids

Have just been finishing the plan (haha!) for this week's GATE (gifted and talented ed) group for thinking skills and problem-solving. I have been reflecting about how the session went last week when I introduced basic coding through the Scratch programme. If you have yet to look at it or even try it, then get a glass of vino or a G&T, grab some other mates and get clicking! The tutorials are pretty basic but it is, in essence, a game of problem-solving.

My group of 14 children aged from 8-9yrs old are all extremely clever kids. And by that, I mean that they are high octane, high motivation, high energy and high thinkers. They are certainly a challenging group since the behaviour with this group is quite difficult, as these big personalities claw at each other to speak louder and get their own, intelligent thoughts heard! So, the only way to 'teach' these kids as a group is to let the teaching be done by themselves. It is a problem-solving and thinking class - ergo, I give them the most simple of instructions with the most complex of tools and then glide around the classroom nudging them gently along.

Last week, the results were fantastic. They do not, by nature, listen well. They are mostly the kids who are always talking over others and are constantly interrupting and failing to listen to instructions. But their brains are hard-wired brilliantly as thinkers and they are best served to learn through their own discoveries. So they got started with a quick 3min youtube clip of the END result of a created Scratch game and then they were faced with a few pages of script ideas for the codes and a blank platform.

I set the timer (these kids work best within the challenge of having to beat a timer) and gave them the simple brief of making the Scratch sprite move, change colour and turn. Suffice it to say, that when the timer went off, they had done a great job. Everyone completed the brief well and then I sent them around to test one another's games so far. This is a powerful way to get kids to teach one another as they will always ask one another, "How did you do that?" and then set about sharing their new knowledge.

We repeated this process several times, adding different challenges, and the kids took total ownership of the challenges quickly, coming up with new ideas and new ways to make the challenges harder for each other.

At the end of the session I asked them to reflect on their new learning and to suggest 'what next?' for the next session so that they have more buy in for the process. They listened to each other, added to each others' comments and were awesome at suggesting other ideas for what they would like to learn next. They also talked about what was tricky and what was newly learnt.

So now I am trying to find some new coding platforms for them to experiment with. I am always trying to plan less and suggest more so that the learning is not restricted to what I plan, but is broadened by where the students lead the lesson.

Check out these platforms and have a fiddle! That's what my kids are doing and it's great!

Friday, April 20, 2012

School Visit 2&3

Now that I am back in New Zealand I finally have the time to reflect on the notes I wrote about my last 2 school visits in the UK. I decided to visit a secondary school while there, which may seem irrelevant to other primary school teachers as a tool for my learning, but I believe that if we are looking at the 'whole child' as we claim to be, then we need the 'whole picture' - from the beginning of their school-life to the end of the system as we know it in Year 13.

I visited a lovely all-boys school in Epsom, Surrey and spent the morning in the maths department with a teacher who is in my PLN on Twitter. We had been communicating about what I wanted to look at and it was really interesting to see a maths lesson with Year 8 children, a short session of problem-solving with Year 13 boys and then a tour around the ICT department to see what is happening there. It ended with a great meeting with one of his colleagues, comparing notes and picking each others' brains.

There is still a separation of technology and eLearning in this school and from what the teachers said, there is still a real separation everywhere. It shows me how far ahead many NZ schools actually are in their thinking and also in the very intentional way that we teach the Key Competencies.

In our discussions, we talked about how all secondary schools the world over are really 'hands-tied' a lot of the time. We HAVE to have some benchmark for achievement, an exam system of some kind that is standardised otherwise we have no way of differentiating between knowledge in learners. All parents and teachers understand this. What is different however, is the fact that most secondary teachers want MORE than 'just' exams - in other words, they are tired of 'talk and chalk' and seek ways to develop a broader set of life skills in each learner. How then, can they achieve this if the curriculum is so rigid and often archaeic?

The boys' school that I went to seem to be embracing 21st Century learning in their own way. Some teachers in the maths department have set up a blog - as a way for their students to reflect on their personal learning. The HOD has also used Google Forms to create an evaluation sheet for his students to fill in but it is not about their learning - he has done this so that the students can comment on and critique his teaching. What a powerful way to get older students to be in control of the learning and also to give them ownership. I was really impressed by that.

I was also impressed to see that other departments and teachers of other subjects were actually massively utilising the ICT in the school. When I walked around the students were incredibly engaged when using the computers. There was a Year 9 science class working on revision - the teacher had set up a session for them where they were using online tools to find information and then create a brainstorm of keywords which they then turned into a wordfind for a partner.

There was another science lesson in the library using the computers and laptops to investigate the heating and cooling process. Again, the student engagement was astounding. In one of the main ICT labs there was a Year 12 class who were designing a website using specific criteria from a brief and were using DreamWeaver to make this. This class was all internally assessed for the work and the teacher talked passionately to me about her learners and their motivation.

I found it interesting that they had worked to increase all of their computer labs to have 1:1 devices. Although the students were talking to those around them about their challenges and learning, all of the work was individual and required no collaboration at all.

In the classrooms in the UK, it appears that most schools have an interactive whiteboard now which only the teacher uses. I find this interesting because instead of it being 'talk and chalk' it is more like 'interactive pen and talk' if the students are not using the boards at all. However, there is a lot more creativity around the boards uses and the teachers are able to accurately demonstrate lines and graphs in maths and so on.

All in all, I was left with some interesting conclusions. Secondary school - or Years 7-13 in NZ - are left in a unique position. They must prepare students for exams but they must also build on the foundations of the primary years. This would seem to be easier than it is being made in many ways, since the exam years are ONLY the last 3 years of those 13. Why then, does secondary school become so entrenched in putting students in boxes and testing, testing, testing? There has never been a move to change this process so that assessment is more important than input in and output out, with no reward for the ability to think, problem-solve, problem-create, collaborate, self-manage, be resilient and flexible etc. There are many vibrant and enthusiastic secondary school teachers, however, who do place equal weighting on these skills as well as the knowledge.

It is rather like our maths curriculum in primary school here, which emphasises knowledge AND strategy - in other words, looking at the whole learning process rather than just knowledge. I do wonder when we will ever develop this process as an integral part of our years outside primary school...

Friday, April 13, 2012

What About Special Needs Learners?

After my school visit in Germany, I have begun to examine the challenges for teachers of children with specific learning needs. The teachers I met with talked about their priorities being:

  1. the acquisition and use of language 
  2. social acceptance
  3. future opportunities in the workforce and in life
  4.  integration of skills and application of knowledge in real life settings
The children they were working with have a range of different learning needs from autism to hearing impairment to behaviour issues and social anxieties. This broad and challenging range means that their support teachers are constantly adapting classroom programmes to enable these learners to have the maximum support whilst still ensuring that they are developing independence and integration.

In schools in Germany, there is very little use of technology as we know it. There is lucky to be a desktop, often archaeic, in the corner of the classroom gathering dust. The teaching approach is still very much based on a dusty old curriculum, which has changed little in 40+ years. The focus is still on the testing and not on child-centred teaching and learning. 

However, if I were to pick up the pluses that I saw I would have to say that they have really got some great things right. Firstly, they have the most highly skilled and greatest qualified teachers working with the special needs learners. They invest highly in the programmes for these children - they are worked with in small groups within the classroom where possible or withdrawn in small groups when necessary. They do not assign a few hours a week to keeping them mainstreamed but instead they have these children working in a specialist environment and with the experts in their learning. I have to say that I was really impressed with how much time, energy and money is invested in these children. The dedication of their teachers is phenomenal. The parents are in constant contact - the teachers give out their personal home and mobile numbers and the parents are able to contact them anytime. Of course, because this is an accepted practice, the majority of parents respect this right hugely and would generally never abuse it. 

The other thing that seems to work incredibly well in these schools is the small number of children in the classes. There are up to 20 children in the classes and then there are support teachers also for the children with high needs. The monitoring for each child is constant and consistent which has to be an extremely positive thing.

We got on to talking about technology in the classrooms and it was interesting to see that this still bears no impact on the learning in most schools in Germany. Computers, digital devices and learning are still totally disconnected and it is considered that with a much shorter school day (the children go home at 1pm at the latest) there is an already overloaded curriculum. It is deemed as imperative for the children to manage to learn to read, write and calculate at school through traditional means and this ensures that technology receives no look-in at all. As we talked, it became evident that teachers are pretty frustrated by these short days and would prefer a day that ends at 3pm instead. They are also frustrated by a stale and somewhat crusty curriculum that holds their creativity at bay and restricts their ability to introduce and use the tools of the time. I was surprised at the fact that computers are still viewed in schools as a play-thing here, rather than a learning mechanism. Testing is still a high priority from the moment that children enter school.

I showed them the wikis, blogs and online tools that we use in our classroom. We talked about self-management and the broader skills of a learner that can be developed through a variety of methods. We also talked about learning styles and student-driven learning, something that is largely ignored due to the curriculum demands here. It highlights the forward movements that some nations make and certainly makes me question the huge differences between countries and their education systems.

My friends and their colleagues are highly intelligent, self-motivated, creative people who went through these same school systems and constraints. They are able to collaborate and self-manage, think and problem-solve, so it certainly demonstrates that different methods can achieve the same goals. The only difference is that, put into a position in another country, they may not possess the same level of knowledge around technology. Does their education system prepare them well for THEIR country's jobs? I believe that it does. Could it be better? Well, I sense that these teachers and their colleagues in the main believe that it could and yearn for a greater acceptance of change from the leaders who can make it happen.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Failing School

I met up with the children of my friends over here in England the other night. I taught one of them but didn't teach the other many years ago.

Over dinner, we talked about their lives over the past 10 years and it was fascinating to hear about how their school-lives had panned out. Both of them have dyslexia to varying degrees and the younger of the 2 also struggled behaviorally due to the frustrations of not being able to communicate. It really saddened me to hear him talk about how he was bullied, how he was treated as an annoyance by the teachers throughout his time at school, how he had been frustrated and disillusioned in school. No-one listened to him, in fact, he had no voice at all and felt powerless in the school system and constantly frustrated by not fitting in the box like everyone else. He was taught in a 'one-size-fits-all' system, yet all of the attempts to squash him into the mold of the education system only forced him to struggle against it more.

Never once did I hear him talk about choices. He is a lovely young man, well-mannered, full of character and spark, yet no-one, in all of the 11 years of his school-life, ever listened to him or asked him about his learning. He told me how much he hated school and how much he loathed the teachers. There was no light in the dark tunnel for him - not one teacher made a difference, not one teacher took the opportunity to help this young man. Is he educated? Absolutely. Is he intelligent? Totally! But the reality is that he didn't fail school, school failed him.

Imagine how different his life and choices could have been if just one person in all of those years had actually got to know him as a learner? Imagine if just one teacher had spent the time supporting his learning style and encouraging him in something that he was engaged by? Imagine if someone had actually listened to him instead of simply shutting him up and shutting him down? He even told me that he only acted up because he was bored and utterly frustrated because he couldn't spell and everyone said he was dumb because he couldn't write and spell. His parents are amazing - this is reflected in the fact that he is a delightful, intelligent young man who has grown up confident and happy regardless of the school system. They always supported the schools he attended but more than that, they supported and nurtured their son as he struggled.

It has highlighted for me how important our role is in the lives of every child who passes through our classrooms. They have a right to be respected and heard, to be valued for who they are and for how they learn. They have a right to be creative and encouraged, to be listened to and more than anything, they have a right to a fair and good education. This, to me, means that we treat every learner the same yet we approach their learning differently. We do not have a 'one-size-fits-all' learner on every seat in every classroom but there are still many education systems and many, many teachers who try this approach to learners.

It is time for all teachers to accept responsibility for the children who 'fail' in our classrooms. Their success belongs to them but their failures are often caused by us. That means that only WE can change their failures by the way we teach them.