Workshops, masterclasses and salted caramel…

I’ve been told that I have a few idiosyncrasies. There are some things that I’m very passionate about. One might say obsessive. The outlawing of comic sans, magenta fonts, underline headings, the use of Microsoft paint, wiz and Weebly for projects, salted caramel (really….this is a thing?), sweet and savoury combined, soggy bread (should have discussed this before I got married), the use of the terminology “a” PBL (aside from grammatically incorrect, implies that there’s just a project, not a pedagogy) and lastly…okay, let’s be honest it’s not going to be lastly….the distinction between a workshop and a masterclass.

My point being here, is that there should not be one. When I run workshops in my classes, it’s to learn something. For every student that should be extending their learning. So, for a student who doesn’t know how to spell, that workshop is appropriate. For students who need to structure sentences better…they workshop this. The workshop, then should become a norm in the classroom…every student attending workshops at their level, for their need at their needed time.  This is when open pedagogy  with multiple teachers teaching more than one to thirty becomes very powerful. This differentiation should now become the normal happening in the class. No longer is there a master class for a smart kids, and workshops for others. Every student participates in a range of workshops catered for their need. And, in our classroom, students should see them as opportunities to learn new things, which is constantly happening in targeted groups…no matter what level that skill is at. 

This is where we then see shift…whee we can support and extend students in workshops where they’re not seen as pullout programs, as extra hits or as extra support….but all kids learning with a teacher or students at their level, where they might attend some workshops designed to extend, and some to support, but in the end, it’s all just “learning” 

Teacher’s guide to effective group work

Students need to work in groups. This is something that adults have to do all the time within their work, and a skill that employers are telling us that is both necessary and absent from the current generation of students coming out of schools.  The problem is that throwing students into groups and letting them learn through failure, while ultimately (with appropriate analysis and reflection) is teaching them how to facilitate group work, it is a very slow and heartbreaking process. In addition, this is the quickest way to get student complaints about how the group is functioning. And, by the time that you have gotten through the process of working through and adjusting and negotiating for students, you are tired, and you have decided that you will never ever do group work again.

 Dr Bruce Tuckman published his model of group dynamics in 1965 and this is still relevant today. Think of a group that you have ever worked in while looking at the Tuckman model.  Firstly, a group forms. This is the initial process, where groups are created, introductions made and ice breakers (either formal or informal) are conducted. This is the happy family stage, where everyone is being nice to each other, as, essentially the group are strangers, and generally, as a human race, we are polite to strangers. This is the time to set goals and overall vision.  

Next, is the storming process. This is the component where people resist, some quietly and passively, some vocally and publicly. This is the time when people are starting to test each other, get to know each other better, and can sometimes be defensive, take sides and resist ideas, sometimes, just for the sake of it.

The third process is the norming stage, where people start to “settle in” and work together for common goals. Finally, the point to the group work is the performing stage, where everybody gets together and is a functional and productive team.  Ideally, this is where most of the time is spent within the team, as this is obviously the most productive way to work. Ideally, a group project should look like this:






However, sometimes our groups look more like this, where the performing component is the smallest part of the group project. This is what many of our group projects look like, and what ideally we want to avoid.







Even the following has its disadvantages, though. If you are in a group that doesn’t have a storming process, you will find that there is no innovative ideas happening, or people are just accepting the status quo in order to move on to the work. This can be counter-productive to good ideas.







As teachers we want to make students learn the most from their experiences, and ensure that everyone is getting their ideas across, that there’s a high performance percentage and that everyone is doing the work. So, what can we learn from Tuckman?


Firstly, I think that students can benefit from hearing about Tuckman, as it makes normal for students the process of storming. If students understand that this is a normal part/process of being within a group, this can minimise the stress of the storming process. In any relationship, storming is a normal part of the learning process, as you learn each other’s normal ways of working (your norms).  This brings us to the next thing we can learn from Tuckman, though….what if you could shorten the storming process by sidestepping it and going to the norming process? Essentially, we do this as teachers every time we start a new year. We step into the classroom, and we set expectations (or normal processes that our classroom will run) every year. What if we can teach students to perform this process? What if this process then, changed the way that language was used within the groups? Changed the way that students contacted and related to each other? The way that they encouraged each other to complete work?  


One process of allowing students to set norms is through development of a group contract. Students should create this themselves and discuss those things that are expected norms within their group. Students’ should start by making a list of the dysfunctions they’ve already had in other group work tasks, and then a list of the features of groups that have been functional. This is a great place to start a discussion about what behaviours work, and what don’t work when learning in groups.  These contracts can also then be used by teachers to guide discussions on group expectations when issues arise. Contract writing does take time. The first time that you do this, it may be a whole period of teaching. This seems like a lot of time, but it’s not only the contract that’s being written here, it is the discussion that happens between students as to what they expect within this time working together. This sets the entire tone for the project.


Some things to consider that can be included in the group contract:

  • Do they want to make a norm that all students are sitting with the group at all time?

  • Do they want students to do their homework all the time?

  • How will they make decisions as a group?

  • What process will they use if they can’t make those decisions?

  • What should be each member’s expected contribution to the team?

  • What are consequences of not following the group contract?


While the group contract is paramount in importance in having students set expectations of each other, it is also important for the teacher to set expectations and accountability.  This can be done formally through the use of the rubric, through teacher observation and peer feedback. You as the teacher will not know every moment of every interaction within the group, but you can formalise this with a series of teacher observations throughout the process.  This not only means that you are judging the interactions of each group member, but also gives you the reminder to stop by every group every lesson to see how they are progressing. You could also make this judgement from afar, using a checklist of expected behaviours of group members (both positive and negative). If students know that you are doing this, but not when you are doing it throughout the project, positive group interactions will increase. Another way to assess this is through the use of peer feedback. Intel have an excellent rubric for this. (Which can be used here as a google form) Students are asked to judge on their co-operation, feedback, time management, listening and participation. It is also worthwhile to get students to reflect on their own abilities in this rubric too, as a form of self reflection. Teacher intervention when students have problems is also important. We need to remember, that adults working in the workplace have issues with their teams, and often have intervention in terms of processes or people to go to intervene on issues.  While norming can help the amount of issues, there will still be issues that occur within the group. Having some sort of timeline of the process to follow if there are issues makes it easier for students to initially self manage and to learn processes involved in managing people.

While management procedures are the first thing in every teacher’s mind, task design and group selection are processes that can bypass many issues prior to the group work starting. A good task, that has clear expectations for students, that could not possibly be done by one or two students at the exclusion of others, with all students requiring input, thinking and learning around every element of the task is the holy grail of group tasks. The best way to see if your task does this is to try it, be truly reflective when it doesn’t work, and modify it for the next year. However, in order to bypass this try-fail process, it is best to give your assessment task to as many teachers as possible to get their opinions on how it can improve. Many teachers have tried group work before, and like any method, getting people who have tried and critique your idea is a good way to bypass it not working in the first place. This takes time, and a hard skin, but is for the betterment of the task in general.


Some things to consider in the development of the task:

  • Can the project be split into the same number of pieces as the number of students in a group? If so, this may be a group task, but the students are not required to work together in order to achieve the outcome. What generally happens here is that each student knows their own area well, and not any of the others.

  • Think of the marking…is there a way to have an individual mark for contribution as well as a mark for the group, so that students marks are reliant on each other, but also so that they have some ownership over the effect of their own mark.

  • How can you get students to need to work together to complete the project?

  • Are student roles evident? Could students rotate through roles, so that everyone has an opportunity to lead, or do you want to include different types of students together?


Group structure and student roles are also an important issue to address within the process of designing a group task. There are many different ways to select groups, and lots of research done on this process that is worthwhile reading. Some ways to select groups include:


  • Student selected

  • Student selected partner, groups of two then selected to go with another group of two by the teacher

  • Putting like personalities together

  • Putting like knowledge/skill levels together

  • Mixing personalities

  • Comprehensive knowledge/skill groups

  • Ranking students and selecting from the same “block” of ranks

  • Totally random

  • Totally random, then move the students that you know will not work together

  • Allow students from the top of the previous task to (not in front of students) nominate groups


The main thing with group selection, and indeed, with group work in general is that when you leave school to go to the workforce, you do not get to select the people that you work with, and you are generally not going to be amazing at group work the first time you do it. Neither will your students. The types of skills that we have discussed here are those built up over time. Your first foray into group work may be successful. It may not be. But like every skill, the more you practice, the more that students will learn their own processes that they can use to manage themselves and others. The final key to effective group work then is to just do it. Practice, reflect, and practice some more.


Further Readings that include strategies for group work

Video conferencing in the classroom

I was so very impressed with my first session at the ACCE conference last week.  Anne Mirshint spoke about video conferencing in the classroom…this is something that I’ve read all the books on years ago, have been to sessions before, and have used things like google hangout in the classroom to access experts. Highlight of my video conferencing was last year skyping a NASA scientist who spoke about the work that was being done on the international space station and why it would be done there and not on earth. It was pretty cool, and kids were really excited about the whole thing. Even just the idea of talking to a (Real) scientist was a great opportunity for students. So, I thought I was all over this video conferencing thing.

I was so impressed with not only the work that Anne had done with this in her classroom K-12, but also the deep understanding that she has as to why this was important. Anne works in a rural area and as we know, as you get more rural in Australia, as you move away from the capital cities, there is less diversity in terms of culture. And she spoke very well about the richness that this provided students in their understanding of other cultures. But, we also have this in the middle of the city.

One of the things that I was very lucky with in my own high school education was that my high school was failing (it was really really bad)….but in doing so, had opened up as an intensive english centre and an adult education centre at the same time (in order to fill a class). This meant that half of my classes were made up of students who were newly arrived into the country and spoke no english, to 60 year olds that had decided to go back to school to do their HSC. So my high school education was very, very diverse. However, even in schools in the middle of Western Sydney, where I’ve spent most of my life (Moved from Greystanes to Greystanes) this isn’t the case all of the time. Sometimes, what looks like diversity is masking a mono or duo-culture that is not anglo-european. And as our filter bubbles provide us continually with information that we expect to see, you could argue that diversity of opinions, cultures and conversations are ways to ensure that we are avoiding self fullfilling ideas.

I was very impressed with Anne’s creating connections to people overseas through the use of video conferencing where even just having a shared breakfast with people allowed them to discuss the differences between the types of food they were having for breakfast…but this exposes them to different cultures, different accents, different writing styles. In quite a serendipitous moment, I just finished reviewing the new NESA syllabus docs for languages, (Yep, I read 8 lots of 180 page language documents….some of them (well one) quite literally in greek, I found myself looking at the opportunities that video conferencing as an opportunity for students to look at difference and diversity, to communicate, access and respond.  When looking at plans for languages for next year as to giving students choice of a language for the year, this gives a good opportunity for students to communicate with native speakers in different accents for different languages. Also, looking how this can be structured, Anne re-introduced me to some long forgotten presentation tools, like Voicethread, where students can interact and discuss verbally over multimedia…video, images, text. I saw this used years ago (in around 2011) in a history project, where students had to grow their discussions and respond to different students in a group based on an original image prompt. It’s one of those great tools that you just forget about over the years.

Anne was also generous enough to provide a plethora of links of ways to connect to people online to allow this to happen. For the short list, check these four out. For more, check out Anne’s list.and follow her on twitter.


Teaching…resumes and interviews and judgements…oh my

We’ve been warned.  The silly season is starting.

The time when, as a new school, we will take on new staff.  All of these decisions and discussions and resumes and interviews (oh my) have made me think about what I want in a teacher that works at St Luke’s.

Because realistically, when you think about it, every time we employ new staff, we make a judgement. A judgement based on a few essential things: a person’s reputation, evidenced by their references, and the way that members of the community at large speak about them (and we all know that education is a very small world), their resume, and a 40 minute (max) interview. Coming from someone that has a decent resume, an okay reputation, and ridiculously bad interview skills (shuddering as memories come upon me from my own St Lukes’ interview where I delved into my traditional language of the western suburbs), I know that we make judgements on these things, but you can’t base a quality teacher on a 40 minute interview. So, what do you do, what can you ask?

Some schools make teachers do a lesson (becuase that’s really realistic with the principal sitting in the class), some ask about potential connections, or about what they’ve last read, made, or their opinions on the syllabus….but how can you judge quality by any of these means?

But firstly, with all of the ability to bring what you want into a job description, that someone will take hours to painstakingly perfect, and all of our measuring against the professional standards, what do we really want from great teachers?

I started this blog post wanting to talk about how teachers needed to know their stuff (their content) but more importantly (coming from the method lecturer), the importance of the method of teaching. This is where specialist teachers (whether primary or secondary) really have it over non-specialist teachers….it’s not really about knowing the content, it’s about knowing what is best practice in the teaching pedagogy of that content…..which in order to understand the method, you must know the content.

Then, I was going to discuss the power of community engagement, through things like your professional networks (….register), parents and the greater community.

Finally, I was going to talk about how what’s really important is that we understand students and their learning.

Then, I realised that actually, smarter people than me have done this already…The professional standards tell us that we know what we want: we want teachers with professional knowledge, the ability to teach it (professional practice) and the ability to engage in their learning and the community (professional engagement).

And all of these are really important….and really do actually sum up what great teaching is about.

But what I really want is what I hope that most teachers come to us with: the realisation that the heart of everything that we do is about kids.

That we teach 12 year olds.  Or 6 year olds. Or 9 year olds. Or 18 year olds.

And, after the night that I just had, where my 12 year old was asked on Sunday if he needed to print his art assignment (no) to Tuesday night waiting in line at officeworks to end up buying an A3 printer because it’s due tomorrow and wanting to kill him because he’s playing Fortnite while I lug a printer from the car to the house, I realise that this is the important thing.

We teach 12 year olds.

They’re disorganised, rude, kind of smelly, do stupid things, forget assignments, swing on chairs, lose hats, they leave their sheets behind, they laugh when the toilet flushes overhead. Sometimes they do really stupid things.

But it’s our job to realise that they’re 12.

And it’s our job to teach them to be organised. To have the conversation to find out why they’re not doing the work. Why they are forgetting assignments, doing stupid things, to give them their hats and their sheets and secretly laugh with them while giving them filthy looks about why they are laughing when the toilet flushes over head. And sometimes, unfortunately, to have the conversation about using deodorant. And sometimes, we need to challenge them for these things. And it’s our responsibility because we’re the adult in the room.

I want a teacher that remembers that sometimes that 12 year old is smelly because their parents don’t remind them to shower. They don’t lug printers from the car to the house, or drive to officeworks to get their printing. Because some of them don’t have access to a printer, or to money to pay for things to print. Or money for lunch. Sometimes mum and dad work until 6, or drive trucks for weeks on end to make sure that they have the opportunities to lose their jackets and to do their assignments.

I want a teacher, who like my son’s english teacher last week, rings to remind me that she’s caught up with him four times already this week, and cares enough to call to let me know. That cares enough to give a detention at lunch to make sure he’s finished his task.

Because they’re 12. And although we have high expectations and we expect students of that age to manage themselves, we don’t trust them to. And we provide the safety net for them when they fall. Cause they’re 12.




Three years ago, my then 10 year old year 5 son was excited by his teacher’s announcement….they were allowed to bring devices to school. Back in the olden days of (3 years ago) they actually called these computers, and as the son of two technology teachers he has access to a lot of technology at home. We have more computers in our household than people. Each of us have an ipad, an iphone, and at least one computer. We have coding (then called programming) days at home with the three of us. We had a few options for him to choose a device to take to school, and we were not about to buy him a new one. Luckily for us, unlike what I advocated at the time as easier for teachers, his school had decided on a BYO anything policy, so we were allowed to choose any device for him to take to school.

After years (pre-the National Secondary School Computer Fund) of advocating for schools to implement 1:1 programs, and being a part of the decisions made at a number of schools, and system levels, my son was finally in a position where he could take his device to school. But what device? Here, I did what any person in my position would do….I took to facebook to ask advice. Unlike most parents however, I had access to some of the greatest minds in this space. Friends that worked at Microsoft, Apple, HP, Intel, the president and president elect of the ACCE, ICTENSW board members, people that wrote the “Computing Studies” Syllabus from the 80’s, as well as the new curriculum, NESA technology advisor, IT sales people and technicians. Normal parents have access to this kind of advice right?

The post has almost legendary status, with 207 comments in advice from people, as I decide whether to send him with a Microsoft Surface or an ipad.


When I finally decided, after much consideration of a number of issues, including the ability to be cross platform, to have a device that wasn’t seen as a gaming device (which his ipad was) and the use of a proper keyboard, with a proper operating system, we made the decision to allow him to take a windows surface to school. Luckily, I had purchased one of these to try out video annotation recording for work, and it had hardly been used. So, he took a device worth almost $2000 to school. Well, we decided that this was the device that he would be taking to school. was all very exciting for him and for me.

Not so for my husband….

And so we waited for his teacher to tell him to bring it in.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Easter came and we waited.

Term 2 came and we waited.

The technology teacher in me was frustrated as every time I asked him whether he was taking it to school or not, you could see the disappointment in his eyes.

It was the last day of term 2 that he was allowed to bring it in….for a research task for History.

My issue, aside from the lack of use of technology in year 5, with technology in the syllabus, and the great opportunity of student engagement, was the fact that there were about 120 students in year 5 this year, all asked to buy a device, a significant investment, 6 months before they ever even thought of using them.

He took it in a few more times in year 5, not enough to justify a purchase of $2000 or even $400 for a basic chrome book. Then, same thing in year 6 and then again in year 7.  The next conversation came the other day about his homework….could he use his phone to add reminders (which he uses very effectively) to put his homework into his phone….no, he’s not allowed to use his phone in his science class, where all the homework is set. What about you take your ipad instead? No, can’t use your ipad in science, the science teacher says that there’s no need for technology (in science????). So, we now have the point where he doesn’t take his laptop to class, because most of the time it’s either not allowed or not needed.

In the age of new technology, I realise that it’s important that students hand write in books, read real books and communicate with each other. But there’s also an importance in learning how to drive a computer….really drive, not just email and facebook. There is no such thing as the digital native any more….students are losing computing skills by the as they play fortnight and snapchat each other. They can WASD like no one else, but ask a student to save something to a USB, and they look at you blankly.

How does this relate to teaching?

Lets think about things from the parent perspective. How can we ask parents to spend money on a device that then we don’t let students use in the classroom.

Looking at the student’s future…. how are we using technology in the classroom to work beyond a content delivery device? Are students just using their very expensive laptops in order to do a google search they could do on their phones?

Looking at how we use technology as a teacher…..are there opportunities where we could more effectively utilise technology….how can we move to redefining the task?


I thought then about what I could say to my son’s teachers to get them rethinking the use of technology in the classroom. One year I decided to throw in my laptop for two weeks when we implemented an iPad program to see if I could do everything I could do on a laptop with an iPad.

Can you then, if you have finally gotten through my ramblings, think about the following challenges to see if you can moderate your practice to include more technology:

  1. Limit your photocopying. Try not to do a single piece of photocopying in a week. There is most definitely room for paper in learning. However, there needs to be thought about the copying of work…is it purposeful…is there another way to do it? By challenging yourself to use no paper in your classroom for a week, you are forced to use alternative practices in your classroom. Constraints are actually a positive influence on innovation.
  2. Think about how what you do on technology now can have functional improvement….try a system to read-aloud text that you put in instructions. Pre-record a tutorial on video. Try digital online badges.
  3. Get students to create something on their computers. But don’t forget that when you ask students to do something, that you should know how to do it. Don’t ask them to use photoshop if you don’t know how to use it yourself. You don’t need to know how to do everything…but try the tutorials you set kids. See if you can do the project first. Don’t expect kids to be digital natives. We can’t expect kids to learn skills by themselves….like content, they need to be taught the skills.
  4. What could you possibly try in the classroom where students would not have possibly been able to do without technology? How can you enhance their learning in ways not possible before? Can students build things that they couldn’t in CAD, in VR or in something simple like Minecraft?
  5. Pick another tech challenge that is easy, then pick one that’s hard. Challenge yourself to do something different.

And when you’re thinking about this…think about that kid that’s so excited to bring his laptop to school, who then gets the forty pages of photocopying to put in his book every day. And about the parent who purchased an expensive paperweight.

“Hands on” teaching and learning….?

As we come up to the end of the term….you can hear the light hearted ribbing around the staff room….Blog posts are due…have you done the blog post….what’s your blog post about this term?  I also specifically get the “You’ve probably done your blog already right…?”

Well, this month, I haven’t. Although traditionally, I’ve been the one at the school that has the reputation of over-blogging. Mostly, because I get really excited about what I’ve been doing. This month, as I think about what I’ve been doing as the run down to the holidays (and running down to some time in the Lightning ridge mineral baths), that although I’ve been enjoying and feel very satisfied in the work that I’ve been doing this month, I realise very clearly that not many people would find what I’ve been doing in any way exciting. Obviously, as we run down to the end of term 2, we start to look at that process that strikes fear into the hearts of teachers, parents and students….reporting.

So not only do we do reports very differently at St Luke’s, we also decided to start using a new reporting program. Of course. Because we don’t like to challenge ourselves enough. The work that was done last year in terms reporting process (not by me) was brilliant. The focus on our 6 pillars as the priority of the reporting process really reflects the priorities of our classrooms. Each student has six pages of reporting on our pillars….Give Witness, Relate, Manage Self, Think Critically and Creatively, Communicate and Collaborate and Be digitally literate. Students are given detailed feedback around their achievement against the pillars, and strengths selected from the work that they do across KLAs.

A new reporting program, aside from the major amount of work that this takes, also gives us the opportunity to be reflective around things that we report on. This year, the following changes have been made to our reports, which may seem like minor things, but have significant effect overall. This year, students will be rated on a four point, rather than a three point scale on their achievement of the pillars. This gives students, who realistically should be working towards for the majority of the stage, to see steps in achievement over the two years. By placing a bigger scale, where we not only have working towards, working at and working beyond, but also include “emerging towards”, students have a greater ability to demonstrate improvement across a stage.

Student strengths are now based around outcomes, giving a greater link between the work done in the classroom, as teachers and students work together to develop social and enterprise skills while  engaging in core curriculum.

Within reporting of our core curriculum, students are now reported on a five point scale, rather than from A to E. The requirement to report on an A to E scale this year changed to the requirement to report on a five point scale, and we were quick to jump to this to create a scale that we think is more descriptive of student learning, and a greater reflection of the common grade scale than an A to E specification.

  • Working Deeply
  • Working Beyond
  • Working at
  • Emerging towards
  • Working towards

In addition, a change to the layout of the report reflects the ability for a student to move up the scale from working towards to working beyond. This progression from left to right reflects how our assessment rubrics are set up to indicate a progression across the stage, from something simple like the arrow indicating movement towards the top end of the common grade scale, where students transfer learning to new situations.

Finally, an exciting development from the technology teacher….alphabetised subjects. Our reporting specialist from CEDP tells us that she has seen this before, but I’ve never seen it in a subject report in all my years of teaching (and I am a bit of a report layout fan). Many years ago, I heard the list of KLAs referred to as the “top four” and the “bottom four” with English, Maths, Science, and HSIE being the general level of importance given to subjects, with the “bottom four” (two of which are my subjects) generally listed in whatever order the principal’s priorities are.

With a focus at St Lukes on “nurturing faith-filled, curious children to become creative contributors and innovative problem solvers for a changing world” some students will naturally see some subjects as being important, while others are not to them…and this mix of subjects, interests and strengths are as individual to each student as their personalities and learning preferences. So…why do schools create an environment where one subject is more important than the others? These small things….order of subjects in lists, allocation of the little bits of extra time, avoidance of disrupting certain subjects over others, timetabling of certain subjects as “fill ins”….these things all lead to a long term impression of priority and importance of some subjects over others. This then can lead to an impression for students that it’s more important to succeed at one subject over another. Why do we not value student interest and choice over a historical and preset order of subjects? Are we killing our student curiosity by implying that subjects are really interested and engaged around are not given priority or importance. Maybe this is just my rant since the two subjects that I’m trained to teach are part of the “bottom four”. However, when you see a year 12 student that is totally engaged and interested in their major project, when they are getting high band 6’s in that subject…who are we to tell him that that subject isn’t important? That it doesn’t deserve as much time as maths or english, or that it’s on the bottom of a report. 

A friend sent me a quote from a lecture the other day about how sometimes leaders were not able to be as hands on with teaching and learning as they like because of the requirements of things like reporting. This blog post was meant to be focused on that quote. After spending a late night last week editing report comments when the comment bank wasn’t correct (approximately 2000 errors to correct manually), a weekend doing final proofs and chasing unexplained attendance, it’s hard to see that you’re having an effect on teaching and learning. However, after seeing printed finished reports (well, PDF versions….because we’re digital) I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done with them…and these small changes can have lasting effects on teaching and learning.



Differentiation to Personalisation

The purpose of differentiating the curriculum is to provide appropriate learning opportunities for students of different abilities and interests. It is what I would say is an indicator of a high quality classrooms….that there is difference in what students learn based on ability or interest.  

A differentiated curriculum is a program of activities that offers a variety of entry points for students who differ in abilities, knowledge and skills. In a differentiated curriculum teachers offer different approaches to what students learn (content), how students learn (process) and how students demonstrate what they have learned (product).

Numerous models of curriculum differentiation can be applied creatively to produce programs that provide flexibility and choice for the range of individual differences in the classroom. These models show how content, teaching and learning processes and products can be fine tuned to meet the needs of all students.

The Maker model of differentiation works particularly well within a PBL classroom.

This model incorporates strategies for the modification of content, process, product and the learning environment.

Content needs to be adjusted to accommodate the ability of students. Students that are gifted within the domain, for example, will be more likely to deal with more abstract ideas.  The curriculum can then be compacted so that students have the opportunity to be challenged and achieve outcomes of a higher order. For students with learning needs, a different level of content may be used, where modified language or examples may be used in order to make the content level easier to access.

Process involves the methods that are used by teachers to present information, the questions asked of students and the mental and physical activities expected of them. This is essentially the pathway that students will follow in order to meet the outcomes. Not all students must follow the same pathway to show understanding of the outcomes.  Within a PBL Classroom, often students are working on different elements of a project and in different ways. A good PBL classroom would have a number of workshops within the lesson structure, so having different students attend different workshops based on their needs would not be an unusual activity.

Product modification works well within a PBL classroom, particularly with those projects that have an open ended product as the end product. Students might show their knowledge and understanding of the content in different ways. Students may elect to show a film, write a poem, physically act out their display or create a physical model. Grouping students and the structure of the task is important here.

This week, I was lucky enough to visit three schools in Victoria moving beyond differentiation to true personalisation of student learning. Our principal, pathways coach and I went to  Bundoora Secondary College, Mount Alexander College and finally Templestowe College, each successive school further away on the track of personalised learning for each student.

At Templestowe, we spoke to one student who had accelerated some of her VCE subjects to do certain VCE units (equivalent of the HSC) in year 8, 9 and then 10, to finally complete her VCE with the ATAR that she needed to get into the course that she wanted, however, decided to do an extra year to run her own theatre production, while working part time at the school as part of the school council.

In all three schools, the curriculum was individually personalised with different types of “elective” courses, co-designed with students and teachers to create interest based electives that taught curriculum concepts. Through the three tours I spent much of my time jokingly (somewhat) telling our pathways coach Oriana, that “No, we can’t have animals” until I walked into their feathers and fur class, and saw the work on the whiteboards. These students had managed the entire class, from paying for the animals, a daily schedule of care that had been spread between students to “deciding whether to spend $200 on a vet visit or getting an animal put down”….students run the elective and manage all of the decisions of within the course.  I was so impressed with the management and organisation of the students, within an area that they very clearly cared strongly about.

Student electives are created in levels of beginners, intermediate and advanced where the whole curriculum is co-constructed with students to be the ultimate in personalisation. Each person is treated with the same level of respect, be they student, principal or teacher. With a “Yes is the default” policy, any person can propose a topic/program and it will not be rejected unless it is too costly, takes too much time, or has a negative impact.

Coming from a design background, where every student is encouraged to follow their own interests, I kept reflecting on how the design and tech syllabus would fit into these electives, where any student could potentially make anything or do anything…be this a theatre production, a physical object or writing a book. We do this in year 11 and 12 where good design teachers give students the option to do “whatever they like…so long as you can maintain interest for a year”. You can see this in the quality of the projects that classes present…Not only the quality but the range of different types of projects….where the teacher is obviously not the expert in the class, but the has given students the freedom to drive the project.

Is there any reason, however, that this can’t be done earlier? There’s really no pre-existing knowledge of design processes, materials or manufacturing processes that’s assumed on entry to the design and tech syllabus. So, is a 12 or 13 year old capable of running a self-driven design project? If a student is passionate and interested in the project that they have designed, developed and made the decisions around…why not? There’s nothing developmentally inappropriate for a year 7 or 8 student in the HSC course. 

The next step then…can a student engage in designing a course to the level that is required to learn course content in a subject like English, HSIE or Maths? If the student is truly engaged in the course due to the fact that they have made choices around what they want to do, and where they want to lead the content?  With the help of rubrics where students can checklist key competencies when they learn them?

All of these are interesting ideas, and with the consideration of the extra time within the curriculum, there is a very easy move to personalised learning from differentiated in this time. But lets also try to figure out how we can give students more choice…more personalisation within our regular curriculum too.

Future Schools: Technical Language….Piaget or Push?

In a previous blog post, I wrote about what I presented at Future Schools. I was lucky enough to be selected to present, but from the minute I got onto the plane, to the minute that I left (and I think the next Friday at school) I was running a bad fever and the last thing I wanted to be doing was going to a conference. I really wanted to be sleeping in my (super) comfortable hotel room, trying to get over the flu that I had. And I really did think that my learning was greatly effected by this, but as I’m going through and writing out my learning for these blog posts, I feel this is going to be a series….not a duo. So obviously, I learnt more than I thought. 

One great session that I went to was from Martin Levins. Martin and I have known each other for a while through the ICT Educators Board, but I have never heard him speak before. I absolutely loved his speech. He spoke about not letting our knowledge of Piaget put a cap on student capabilities. Martin’s work at ACARA puts him in the Northern Territory quite often. They have no computer educators group like ICTENSW and a large transient and distant teaching force. He spoke about going out to a community and teaching some basics of scratch, leaving computers and then returning weeks later. He then showed a video of students explaining their scratch game. The funniest thing listening to the student mispronounce the word variable….obvious that he’d not actually been taught about variables.  This shows that we can sometimes put a device in the hands of kids and don’t tell them what they’re not developmentally ready for and they will stretch themselves and experiment if the motivation was there. This student was using technical language due to the fact that he had seen variables in the program, and he had wanted to know how to do something like a score.  What amazing things students can do if you use technical language with kids. If they have the motivation, then they will unpack it.

Funnily enough, one of our Guru science teachers, Oriana Miano and I were having a similar discussion in previous weeks about the word variables. We were deciding what to do with the term in activities club, in which we both teach K-7 students. Oriana for science (Tuesday), myself for technologies (Thursday). Variables in K-6 are called “factors that effect experiments” and the word variables itself does not appear in the primary syllabus.   I, of course, didn’t know this and had been discussing variables in coding in activities club….so variables (factors that effect experiments) was related to variables (values that can change) and we decided to go with using technical language and unpacking it. Students found this very easy, and while I was doing scores and health values in coding on a Thursday, Oriana was experimenting with variables such as the amount, type of coke, amount of mentos and delivery method in order to create the best Mentos and coke reaction. The point of this was not to just blow up Mentos and coke, but it was a deliberate and explicit unpacking of how variables can effect experiments.

I was also lucky enough to be asked a few weeks ago by our Instructional Leader  (Julie Preston)  to take Stage 2 through some 3D printing processes, as they had done some study of this within their reading sessions with her. Oriana again decided to jump in with me and we had great fun teaching a group of stage 2 students about 3D printing. Within about three seconds we learnt not to lower our language to talk to stage 2, and we ended up talking to stage 2 about the chemical composition and density of 3D printer filament, sustainability being more than just recycling, and about computer aided manufacturing. With the work that Julie had already done with students in problem solving terminology when they didn’t know it, students were able to, with very little prompting, extrapolate what CAM was through their knowledge of CAD.  I imagine this was not what was expected with the development of the new syllabus and where students were “developmentally ready for”.

I am so lucky to be in a place that questions our standard expectations with students.  To be in a place where personalised differentiated learning is not just something that you put in your programs in order to pass compliance, but that is an authentic, living, breathing focus of learning. That we consider Piaget, but are not limited by him. That all students are given the opportunity to learn something new that they didn’t know (or know how to do) before they came to school that day.  Now that we have been in it for a term, and know our students better, I’m excited to see what our year 7s particularly will be able to produce this term. It’s also nice to see that the concept of variables in the new science and tech syllabus has been put into Stage 3.

Sneaking through Stage 1

In my day, I regularly try to quietly and sneakily cut through the stage 1 classroom in order to get either across the school or up to Stage 3 and year 7. It’s the shortest route, and after climbing the stairs five or six times a day, my laziness kicks in and I wander through the classroom trying the best I can not to disturb.

Lately, however, I’ve been cutting through the classroom for another reason. I have been in a lot of PBL classrooms, and I have sat through a lot of Entry documents. I have used this example of an entry document when I’m training people in entry documents since 2012. It’s so far the best example of getting kids emotionally (sometimes angrily) involved in a project.

Then, I saw this on twitter. What an amazing way to engage students curiosity and invoke questioning around the topic. Each day some something is added to this section of the classroom. I walked in the other day and animal sounds were playing, and there were leaves all over the ground.  Students are starting to ask questions about what could possibly be in the box, and teachers are putting them up on the wall around the box. Students are then making hypotheses around what could possibly be in the box, and then using logic to rule out ideas (no, it can’t be a shark, it’s not big enough). Each day I walk past I now make sure to stop and look to see if there’s something new.

It’s interesting, my experience in the past is actually that where teachers have been effectively trained, that where PBL has been implemented in a primary setting, the change has been significantly easier, longer lasting and more rich for a number of reasons….firstly, experiential learning has always been a feature the younger that students are in education, secondly, that primary teachers understand the connections between syllabus documents better, and that finally, change in a year in a primary school requires change of maybe three or four teachers to effect an entire year group. In high school a year group may have 30 or 40 odd teachers in a normal school.  I also think primary teachers also have a greater knowledge of their students….the difference between five hours a day in primary and five hours a fortnight in secondary is significant.

I’m really interested to see what’s in the box. I think I’ll be secretly cutting through their classroom a lot more this term.

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