Monday, 27 June 2016

Digital Division Across NZ Schools

If we were to describe the position of technology in education now, what term or phrase would we use? We seem to bandy certain terms around such as 'digital revolution', '21st century education', 'digital classrooms'...and so on but I'm not sure we understand where we are really at in the journey towards digital integration in education, as a country. I suggest that across the country we are on a large continuum of technology evolution.. ranging from schools with 3 or 4 working devices in classrooms to 'paperless' schools with one-to-one devices.
In my opinion there are 4 main areas that need to be addressed before we can truly move forward and claim to be part of a 'digital revolution' as a nation.

1. Lack of devices in schools
2. Lack of computers/internet in homes
3. Lack of teacher knowledge
4. Lack of access to quality digital resources

1. Lack of devices in schools
This situation reminds me of how I feel every time I'm silly enough to read the 'Sunday' pullout section of the NZ Herald. Whenever I do it quickly becomes clear to me that I am certainly not the target market for that paper. I don't usually have vanilla pods lying around my pantry for that sensational recipe and I certainly don't have that large house and garden that's being showcased with vintage furniture. I just cannot relate. In fact, it can leave me feeling as though I'm out of step with everyone else...when in reality I'd wager that the majority of us actually feel the same way.
I can imagine that schools and educators with very few up to date and operational devices or with a lack of digital knowledge feel similarly out of touch when they read an educational article discussing 'the digital revolution' in NZ schools? What revolution? In some cases, schools are struggling to do a quarter turn, let alone a revolution.

2. Lack of computers/internet in homes
I've spoken with secondary and primary teachers in schools where by far the majority of kids don't have access to the internet or computers at home. This is a problem. Technology is supposed to open networks of communication between home and school...but that's not always the case. I've been there myself as a teacher...slogging away trying to get a class blog going so that parents and family can contribute to classroom life (and because it was the 'in' thing to do at the time) and then giving up 6 months later after realising that many families didn't have easy access to computers/the internet.
More schools are starting to use online document sharing so that students, families and teachers all have access to the student's work, homework and they can provide feedback etc. I wonder how this works in homes where there is no access to the internet? I wonder how that then translates back to a divide in the classroom? My own children have been in this predicament....they were required to provide printed copies of their online work and we had no working printer at the time. No, the school wouldn't provide printing. I wondered how hard that was for families who don't even have a working computer, let alone a printer.

According to the Digital Technology In Schools, 2014 Report, "Decile 4-6 and 7-10 schools were significantly more likely to report communicating with the wider community/whanau...."

Schools are pushing for a seamless digital journey (as they have probably been encouraged to do) and yet not all families can buy a ticket for that journey. Those families are on the footpath chasing after the bus and waving desperately. If this problem isn't addressed it won't be a 'digital revolution', it will be a massive 'digital divide'.

3.Lack of teacher knowledge
This is not teacher bashing. Teachers are over-worked and over-whelmed with ongoing changes and constant revolutionary educational of these changes is the need to ensure that students are digitally fluent. What does that mean? It seems that some schools/teachers are unsure what this really means. I have heard of schools having students complete maths worksheets online, worksheets with no enhancements apart from the fact that the answers are marked for the teachers....who is this benefiting? In those cases, students are spending too much time on formatting issues or clunky designs which require lots of scrolling to view question and answers instead of focusing on the learning at hand. Some students are craving old-fashioned pen and paper worksheets. Apparently, in one school, when students were asked whether they preferred to do their maths work online or on paper, the majority voted for paper. Now, we all know most students love working with technology so the issue must lie with the types of tasks being presented. In many cases we are still just substituting traditional paper for digital paper. I believe that many teachers still don't feel confident (or have the time) to redesign the learning experiences in their classroom in order to use technology in authentic ways that are beneficial to student learning.

"Of note, only 11 percent of responding schools reported their school did not need further support and was ready for N4L, In contrast, approximately three-quarters of schools (72 percent) said their teachers needed further professional development support in using digital technologies for teaching and learning" 
Digital Technology In Schools, 2014 Report

3.Lack of access to quality digital resources
I don't miss the days of trawling the internet looking for that 'just right' digital learning activity for my students and although I believe there is an increasing number of quality and accessible digital learning resources out there, this is still an issue for teachers. There is a plethora of resources available online of varying quality....but who has the time to go through them all? And when you do finally find something decent you discover it's full of US spelling or something else which makes it unsuitable. I think (or at least I hope) we have moved beyond the days of thinking that solely sending students off to play free educational games is effective digital pedagogy. You would never provide worksheets for you students without being completely sure what was on them or throw them away afterwards without providing feedback.....which is essentially what is happening with many of those free online games. There are digital resources out there which provide a personalised learning journey for the student and progress information for the teacher; resources which allow for interaction between student and teacher based on the learning within the digital resource. How many schools are using quality resources such as those I wonder?

What is being done to address these issues and the digital division across schools in New Zealand?
I would love to hear how things are going in your own school.....

Digital Technology In Schools, 2014 Report
Research New Zealand
Report prepared by 2020 Commission

Monday, 20 June 2016

Corporate Classrooms

Maybe I should rename my blog name 'Devil's Advocate', as it seems I like playing that part at the moment...

There are some exciting and wonderful changes happening in our education system at the moment. Teachers are teaching collaboratively and coaching students, students are questioning and problem solving and of course, much, much more. Teachers are stepping back from the chalk face in a figurative and literal sense. They are facilitating learning through clever questioning, guiding students towards relevant resources/learning experiences and encouraging discussion/socially constructed knowledge.

I wish I could go through primary school again and have the experience of setting learning goals, having some choice in my learning experiences and working independently through a timetable of 'must-do's' and 'can-do's'.....or do I?

One of the most glorious aspects of childhood is the lack of responsibility and stress and instead the security of following the directions set by caring, thoughtful and trustworthy adults. Okay, that's not entirely true....following directions given by adults is probably not high on a child's list of 'glorious' things but it does allow children to relax and be guided by those who have more experience/wrinkles.

I'm back to talking about moderation again....about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We don't want to look back on this time in education one day and realise we created a generation of young adults who are stressed out and extremely serious. Education seems a very intense business these days. Children are expected to help set learning goals (not an easy task really because you often don't know what you don't know), work independently a lot, collaborate often (even adults find this hard), solve problems, critically evaluate, self-assess, peer assess, question, summarise, synthesise.....and actually know what most of those words mean. Don't get me wrong, these are all wonderful skills and necessary for success in a 21st century world, however, I'm tired just thinking about it. Not to mention the stress that teachers are under....this has to be transferring to the students in some way or another.

Is there enough of a focus on children being relaxed, happy and feeling safe/secure at school? Or are we creating a corporate environment in classrooms. It's just a question.

On balance, I think yes, I do wish I could back through my primary school years and have the opportunities that students are having today because after all, steaming through those SRA cards independently while the teacher did reading tests was one of my favourite things to do at primary so I think I would have relished the chance to timetable my day and be more of an independent learner. Plus I was bossy so I loved group work/collaboration, it gave me the opportunity to hone my 'leadership' skills.

I just think it's important to remember we are educating children and ensure they get their carefree childhood as well.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Throwing out the baby with the bath water.....

Last year I had the opportunity of taking part in some maths professional development around the use of rich tasks and mixed ability groups to get students thinking, communicating, questioning and working through maths problems that required persistence and a contextual application of maths concepts/skills/knowledge.

I was excited. I took my new learning back to my classroom and we gave it a go. Most of the kids loved it and I certainly loved it. The facilitator had given us lots of structure to work with so we knew how to run a problem solving lesson effectively, making use of independent thought and group collaboration. I was free to roam the room and observe the children. I wasn't stuck working with one ability group  and telling the rest of the kids to 'go away' (politely) as I was busy with a group. I was amazed at how some of my better mathematicians struggled and yet some of my 'lower' students flourished.

It wasn't long after this that I left teaching. I do remember that planning for these problem solving/rich tasks took a lot of time, if I wanted to do it effectively that is. I also remember wondering how I was going to divide my time between mixed ability grouping and rich tasks with my usual ability groups.

It seems things have progressed since then...and I'm not 100% sure I like what I'm hearing. Granted, I'm only hearing about some of the changes and I haven't seen any in action.

No groups? No 'ability' groups?? Instead, from what I'm hearing 'clinics' are run based on needs identified from rich learning tasks. So....what if you know your students well from observations, diagnostic testing and other classwork and you know where some of their needs or gaps are...shouldn't you also be running groups based on those needs instead of waiting for those things to show themselves in a rich task setting? What is wrong with having both?

I believe that this new way of thinking is based on research that claims that ability grouping limits children and that low achieving children may remain low achieving partly because of the group they were put in. Really?

I did a quick bit of internet research myself and according to Jo Boaler, kids who were grouped in mixed ability groups did better than those in ability groups. However, this research as far as I can tell was with 700 teenagers in the US. How well does that research transpose to a NZ system with fluid groupings and a primary school environment?

I started to this partly where the argument against ability groups is coming from? From an American perspective and system which is entirely different to ours?
So, my questions is .....why? Why do we seem to be on a track towards removing ability groups and instead running 'clinics' based on rich task activities?

For most teachers in New Zealand these days, our groups are so fluid and flexible it's hardly worth writing children's names up in groups anywhere anyway. What a wonderful thing for students to see....that they are all moving groups all the time based on their needs and their progress. If we want to develop a growth mindset in students then surely showing them fluid grouping and the opportunity of changing groups based on progress is one way to do that?

I am already hearing that when teachers run 'clinics' (not a huge fan of that term either to be honest) some students are attending a lot of we really think they don't 'get' that they're needing extra help? Isn't that the same messaging as having them in an ability group in many ways?

Where are the rich tasks coming from? Figure it out and NZ Maths do have some fantastic problem solving tasks but it seems to me that there are either not enough of them or they are not structured with enough support for the teacher....if rich tasks really are going to become the bread and butter of an effective maths programme then surely we need robust resources out there with the key concepts behind a rich task clearly outlined. Possible misconceptions and potential student responses should also be included so that teachers are aware of what to look for. I wonder whether this is being taught at the teaching training's quite a talent to be able to pick up on gaps/skills levels/understanding within a mixed ability group and with a rich task as the context.

I love the idea of using rich tasks and mixed ability groups but I'm not so sold on the idea of throwing out ability grouping as we know it.. I always think it's important to question new ideas and play a bit of devil's my last blog and podcast education we can tend to cling a little bit too tightly to new ideas and lose sight of the bigger picture. Maybe I just need convincing and there may be schools and teachers out there that feel they have things nailed. At this point my feeling is that there's a place for both kinds of grouping and by grasping too tightly onto a new idea we just may throw the baby out with the bath water.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Numeracy Project - Misconceptions

Last week I chatted with Ian Stevens about some of the misconceptions still following the NZ Numeracy Project (see podcast link below). Ian Stevens has worked in education his whole working life and he led the Numeracy Project in its final two years.

I wish I had known some of the information Ian shared with me back when I was teaching. The biggest take-away for me from our conversation was that the Numeracy Development Project was to be a teacher development project rather than a classroom resource. The intention was to develop teachers' awareness of the various mental strategies that students may already be using and could be using, as well as to encourage critical thinking, communication and problem solving in maths.

In my opinion we have gotten a bit 'bogged down' with working through strategies and stressing about whether students know all stage 6 strategies for example. You can't blame teachers for that though, afterall, I recall a time when we were required to have the 'pink book' out on the page we were teaching from and to use the examples and equipment in the book. This was NOT the intention. The intention was for a teacher to understand the concept/strategy and to get an idea of the kind of equipment, games and examples that would help students learn and understand key ideas.

How many schools use the NumPA test yearly or bi-yearly? Are you aware that an intention of that test was to develop teachers' understanding of how to listen to and watch students in order to understand their current thinking, level of knowledge and what strategies they are using to solve problems. The test was designed firstly with professional development purposes in mind as well as an assessment tool.

Before the Numeracy Project was rolled out in NZ schools, a common theme in classrooms was that teachers taught a prescribed formulaic procedure and students either followed that without much thought or they didn't......they solved the problem in their own way and this was often not evident to the teacher. How many adults do you know that say "I could work out the maths problems when I was at school but the teacher always wanted me to do it their way".

Ian spoke about the importance of the wording in both the curriculum and in the Numeracy Project books when understanding the intention of the Numeracy Project.
"By studying mathematics and statistics, students develop the ability to think creatively, critically, strategically and logically. They learn to structure and to organise, to carry out procedures flexibly and accurately, to process and communicate information, and to enjoy intellectual challenge. The New Zealand Curriculum, page 26.

It might be helpful to go back and read the wording in Book 3, Getting Started.

So, are you supposed to teach every strategy?
What about vertical alignment?

Listen to the podcast to hear Ian's thoughts on this and more.
Link here:
Mathematically Speaking with Mandy - Numeracy Development Project

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Practise Makes Proficient

Have you put yourself in a learning situation lately? Have you challenged your mind and been forced to learn something new?

Recently I've been brushing up on my extremely rusty Spanish language skills in preparation for a holiday in Spain (yay!....although.....not so happy to learn there are tarantulas there...). Putting myself in the position of a learner in this way has been very interesting. I've remembered a few things about how it feels to be a learner and what it takes to really feel like you know something well.
Here are 3 important things I remembered about being a learner:

Firstly, it's tiring and it takes real mental effort not to give up when the going gets hard.
Secondly, if you're faced with too much new information at once it all seems unachievable. Small chunks of learning are best.
Thirdly, it takes a lot of practise before you really know something...just when you think you know it, you find out you need more practise. I'll give you an example:

I know the numbers 1 - 10 in Spanish. I do. I learned them at University and I can recite them to you no problem. So I was most confused the other night when I sat down to learn the numbers 20 - 100 and found that 1 - 10 kept slipping from my mind. It fascinated me. I would get to 23 and then...mental blank...what is 4?! It kept happening. 55...56....blank...what is 7?!
I stopped and recited 1 - 10 a few more times. It helped a little - in that moment. But what I began to think of was those children in my class who would be counting forwards and get stuck in the same way. I would always wonder why when they clearly knew the numbers 1 - 10. Or did they?

When I think of the numbers 1 - 10 in Spanish, I realise I don't really KNOW them. I know what they are, I can tell you what they are, but they're not ingrained in my knowledge and memory bank. I haven't written them enough, used them enough in context, thought with them enough, seen them enough...I haven't practised them enough. I think I need to practise 1 - 10 a bit more before I can begin to get fluent with 20 - 100 and then I would have to do the same with 20 -100.

Do we spend enough time with children getting to know those numbers? Really getting to know them..forwards, backwards, upside down (ok not that far). Numbers 1 - 100 are so vital and yet I think we might not provide enough opportunity for practise as soon as the student demonstrates that they can tell you the number order. It makes you think.....I mean...I can count 1 -10 in Spanish.......

Friday, 27 May 2016

Knowing The Full Story

How well do you know the NZ maths curriculum? No, I don't mean just the curriculum for the level(s) that you've taught or teach....I mean the full curriculum...

Some of the best professional development in maths I ever had was when we were tasked with matching measurement problems with the different levels of the maths curriculum from Level 1 to Level 5. It was a much harder task than we all first thought it would be but once we had done it, it gave us such a clear picture of the journey a learner takes through the topic of measurement.

Lately, I have been involved in writing a curriculum for maths....taking one topic at a time and writing outcomes from Level 1 onwards. Doing this has given me such a deeper understanding of the curriculum and the layers of learning within each topic.

I believe every teacher should have this understanding of the full picture before teaching at any level. Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in the level you are teaching that you forget to look at the full picture. You may even be inadvertently setting students up with misconceptions that inhibit their learning at higher levels of the curriculum.

The level of maths you are teaching at is just a chapter of the full story. Doesn't it make sense for teachers to know what the full story is before writing that particular chapter? If you don't, then how will you know exactly what the main character in the story has been through and what you need to write in order to mould that character for what is yet to come in the story?

Monday, 23 May 2016

A Language of Learning

Meta cognition....thinking about thinking. As educators we know how important this concept is in the process of becoming a confident and successful learner. But do we know how to talk with our students about this?

Some schools have chosen to adopt rather complicated terms to describe different elements of meta cognition and then taught these terms to their students so that they can talk about their learning in that same language. It might be just me but something doesn't sit right with me when you hear a 7 year old saying "I'm learning to synthesise"...

There is now a far greater emphasis on the importance of developing problem solving skills and attitudes in our students. In all areas of learning, educators are creating learning experiences that encourage students to solve authentic problems and to be challenged with open-ended tasks. This is a far more palatable way (in my opinion) to give students thinking skills and to encourage them to reflect on their strategies/decisions and thoughts.

I'm interested in the various ways schools and teachers are sharing these problem solving skills with their students. How would a student in your school talk about their learning? How would they talk about approaching a problem in maths ....or in any area of learning. How is a problem defined?

I once asked my class 'what do you do in maths that is the same as when you're reading?' They couldn't tell me one thing. I was shocked. It got me thinking.....they don't realise WHAT they are actually DOING when they are LEARNING or PROBLEM SOLVING.

I developed a series of 'steps' that seemed to me to roughly capture the thinking that we do or we can do when we are faced with a challenge/new question/new information/skill etc

I put these steps into students language and as a class we talked through what each 'step' meant. We discussed how these steps were the same or very similar in maths, art, science, reading, writing and so on. I found it really helped them to see that they were in charge of their learning. It wasn't happening to them, it was happening because of them. They then had a language for learning that we could share and it crossed all learning areas.

What do others do to get their students thinking about their thinking?

If you're interested - my docs are on my Facebook page - Mathematically Speaking

Friday, 20 May 2016

Not Ready To Learn

This morning I'm thinking about those kids in my class and the classes of my colleagues who really struggled with maths and those kids who were always behind in maths. And there is a difference in those two categories....struggling vs behind.

In my experience as a teacher I found that it was rare to have children who genuinely struggled to understand maths. There was maybe 1 in my class, some years there were none. I'm now wondering whether those kids genuinely had dyscalculia. 

But kids who were 'behind' and in my lowest group?....about 3 or 4 every year. These are the kids I'm thinking about this morning. When I think back I wonder how they got to be 'behind'. In some cases they took a bit longer to grasp new concepts, or they didn't have the greatest ability to commit new learning to long term memory so learning facts was slow and hard work. But I also remember that many of those children weren't coming to school ready to learn. 

What some of those kids faced on a daily basis would shock many parents in NZ who are unaware of the level of dysfunction and difficulty in some homes. Some kids were arriving at school stressed, hungry, tired and possibly sick or in pain. Their minds were sometimes on their mothers who were so hungover they didn't get up that morning, their parents who were screaming at each other all night, or maybe the violence they witnessed or suffered. At the less extreme end they may have been up half the night gaming or there was a party that went late or maybe they had to be up late as they accompanied their hard-working parents to their evening cleaning jobs. Or maybe they were arriving for their third day at my school and this was the fourth school they had attended in three years. 

The point is, those kids were over-represented in my lower maths groups and my colleagues' lower maths groups. In some cases we were making great progress with them (along with all the other peripheral support) and then they would suddenly leave. That feeling when you arrive at school to be told they've gone? Empty. Helpless. Frustrated. 
In other cases they just weren't able to focus or learn effectively. They yawned. They hated being behind. They worked hard. They stared out the  window. They cheated to look 'smarter'. They were proud when they learned something new. They doodled on the worksheet. They loved being able to help someone else. They didn't ask for help. They always asked for help. They tried. We tried. 

When we talk about improving maths achievement for that bottom 20% of kids it seems to me that we don't talk about the real issues. Many of those kids don't come to school ready to learn. No amount of teacher education is going to change that fact. 

Thursday, 19 May 2016 takes time...

Let's talk Professional Development for a minute...

Why is it that so often when a new concept or teaching skill is introduced to teachers they are often given 1 - 3 hours time to understand it, digest it, question it and internalise it.
A few staff meetings perhaps or a half-day in the holidays and then it's back to business as usual. Sort of. There might be a follow up discussion regarding how things are coming along or a visit to classrooms to see the new concepts in action but other than that, you're on your own.

It takes TIME to implement new strategies in classrooms. It takes TIME to reflect on how those new concepts will affect your teaching style, your teaching programme, your KIDS.

We don't expect kids to all learn new concepts at the same rate but for reason we often do that with adults. We allow children to have a say in what they need to learn next but so often teachers don't get that luxury.

We know that students who have a say in what they learn and how they learn....learn better. We know that they need time to grasp new concepts and furthermore they need time and support when applying new concepts. It's well known that application of a new strategy is harder than just understanding what it is. Do teachers get enough time and support when applying new strategies in their classrooms?

Here's my two- cents worth.....give teachers an opportunity to have some control over what they need to learn next and how they need to learn it. Give them time to understand a new concept/strategy and more importantly give them time and the support to APPLY it.

In my past life as a teacher the 'photocopier talk' went something like this:
'I was so inspired by that PD....I really want to try it out in my class....I just don't have the time to re-design my programme or get my head around it...I wish they would give us time to actually bring this PD to life....'

Possibly some missed opportunities there.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

When Harry Met Sally

Okay, a very cheesy title but hopefully it caught your eye?

I recently read a fun quote on the net that said 'Dear Maths, we liked you so much better before you hooked up with the alphabet, sincerely, everyone.' You have to laugh...when Harry met Sally or Numbers met Letters sparks definitely flew for most people.

Ahhh algebra....I have to admit as a formula driven, list driven student, I loved algebra. But in today's more problem-solving driven context I'm not so sure I would have.

But that's not the point of this blog...I want to put something out there a little play devil's advocate and I dare a secondary teacher or any teacher to rise to the challenge . I would love that. A little juicy disagreement is what education needs to shake things up and get conversations going.

My daughter (Year 8) suggested recently that she knows everything she needs to know academically unless there is a specific chosen area she needs to specialise in. Granted, I think this was going a tad too far...however, it did make me think. By the end of Year 10 my son will have a good understanding of basic algebra along with all the other maths domains. He can write poetry to some degree, he knows who Shakespeare is, reads material he enjoys and can certainly put together a fine piece of argumentative/persuasive writing when he wants something. So....what now? He's not sure what he'll do when he leaves college and therein lies the problem I guess.

Here's what many people secretly think....they think he doesn't need to know too much more algebra, that he certainly doesn't need to know how to write more creatively and he definitely doesn't need to know that an hours worth of homework a night is only just the beginning for him.

What if he needs algebra later? Or trigonometry? Or decides to become a novelist....well WHEN he's decided that, can't he branch into those areas when he's ready? When he's probably more developmentally ready? Maybe for the next couple of years he should focus on problem solving, being a decent citizen, making good choices, thinking critically and logically. I don't know. I certainly don't have the answers. I hear these kinds of comments from both children and adults all the time.........Maybe, just maybe these same topics that have been compulsory for so many years need questioning. Does a young man passionate about maths and physics need to be put off education because of a compulsory English class that delves deep into thoughts and feelings? Does a budding historian need to be put off due to increasingly more complex maths concepts that will rarely be used in their lifetime?

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Importance of Story-telling

Eureka! Who remembers the story of Archimedes discovering an important mathematical principal whilst enjoying a dip in the bath? The story of Archimedes observing the displacement of the water as he entered the bath and realising that volume could be measured by this displacement is far more memorable than reading the following:

"....the upward buoyant force that is exerted on a body immersed in a fluid, whether fully or partially submerged, is equal to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces."

Stories are a wonderful way to engage students with both maths and science principles and to make them memorable.

Stories are able to bring possibly abstract principles to life and to explain them in unique ways that connect with students at their level of understanding and worldly experience. It's important to note though that not all students do have a similar world experience and therefore culturally responsive stories are essential.

I've both searched the internet and my local library to find titles that will inspire and explain Maths and Science principles for students at varying age levels. It seems to me that there are far more stories available for younger students which is a shame. But even then I admit I have struggled to find a series of books that I could turn to when introducing a new maths concept/principle or to address a maths misconception.

One of my favourite made up 'stories' I used in my own class was the story of 'Anne', the bank teller who didn't understand place value. Poor Anne would hand out the wrong money, give the wrong change, couldn't order numbers properly and much more! Anne had a rather ditzy voice I'm afraid and whenever we were facing place value problems the kids would always want to know 'what would Anne say?!'. So I would miraculously turn into Anne and suddenly know nothing at all about ones, tens and hundreds.....One of the children would have to help tell Anne why she was wrong. They loved it. They could also see the authentic context of place value when it came to money. 

What stories do you use in your classrooms?