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.......