Facts tell, stories sell: coming back to the WHY
As we moved into the second cycle of our action research we wanted to overcome some of the challenges we had faced so far with Learning Process Portfolios. We started to scratch our heads in search of practical solutions. In order to do this effectively, we had to come back to the initial purpose. Why did we want students to have a learning process portfolio?
It was to make them aware of the learning process, to ‘force’ them to reflect on their journey. It was for them, not for us, though of course it would prove incredibly informative and insightful for teachers too.
So what would encourage students even further to analyse and reflect on their learning process?
We searched for authentic examples of this in the real world, and this brought us back to our university days: our thesis! The concept of defending their work could provide students with the motivation to reflect on and evaluate their learning deeply. The opportunity to have a say in the grade awarded on their report may encourage students to take this final and essential phase of their learning seriously.
What is a grade are meant to represent? Grades are ways of communicating achievement of learning. Typically, teachers associate grades to formal assessments. If you perform poorly in the maths exam, for example, you will receive a low grade. But what about the learning that comes from receiving that ‘failed’ maths exam back? What about that ‘aha’ moment that occurs when you get feedback on the questions you got wrong and finally understand the concept that was being assessed? Where is that learning captured and documented? Sadly, it isn’t, well not unless it is re-assessed. That learning remains in the private thoughts of the students, and rarely reaches the judging eyes of the teacher. As educators we continue to preach the importance of celebrating failures as learning moments, but are we actually?
If students are given the opportunity to share that incredibly powerful learning with the teacher, it can be formally recognised as it should be.
In reminding our class of this possibility in our HSIE/LOTE lesson this week, we were approached by a student eager to share the fact that during the feedback session she realised that she had acquired the skills being tested in the formal assessment. She had failed the task, and wanted to know how she could demonstrate the rich learning that had come from this failure. Our answer, at the time, was to write a detailed reflection supported with evidence articulating and explaining the new thinking she had acquired.
We were approached by a second student with similar questions. We were excited by this interest, but it was only two individuals in a class. Making the defense of their learning a compulsory requirement, indeed a formal summative assessment task in itself, would encourage all learners to take full advantage of this opportunity.
What could this defense look like?
This brought us back to a scene from High Tech High documentary Most Likely to Succeed. A middle school student was talking about her personal and academic growth in front of her teachers, parents and other students. It was emotional and compelling. The process was called Presentation of Learning. We wanted to capture the deep learning and reflection inherent in this process as our students presented the story of their learning journey. We encouraged students to develop a storyline that brought in their most significant moments as they trod the daily path of learning.
In line with the adage ‘facts tell stories sell’ the concept of ‘selling’ their grade to us was introduced. As both the development process and the final outcome were viewed as integral aspects of the story, students were initially prompted to consider their learning story through group-based discussion questions such as:
What were the mountains that you needed to climb and the summits that you reached through problem solving and persisting?
What were the valleys and disappointments that you struggled through and how did you develop as a result of these challenges?
The non-negotiables of this process were that students:
- Had to be advocates for their own learning
- Include reference to learning units with embedded outcomes (subject and skill)
As this process was new, we scaffolded framing questions and provided possible links to suggested units of work.
|What was the most significant moment in your learning journey during the semester?
Think about the unit that you enjoyed or were challenged by – what was it about that impacted you
One student response indicated that for the first time, they felt that they could show us what they could do and showcase their skills (insert unit and specific skill set) Night at the museum, applying for the exhibition curator role
|In what ways have you explored new ideas or attempted to seek solution?
In what ways to you improve on an initial concept of idea to make it better
An example of a student response to this question was in the health-promoting game design where they had no knowledge of coding prior to the unit, but were up-skilled and able to problem solve to design a professional looking and educational game
|When would you have done something differently and what would the possible results have been?
When did you fail or were disappointed in the outcome – what could you do to change the result
|In what ways have you been prepared, professional, or held high expectations for yourself?
When did you challenge yourself, where did you take risks?
An example of a student response to this question was in the Dance Off unit, when a student realised his group members were relying on his informal hip-hop experience to lead and up-skill the team.
|When did you truly connect with a person, project, or learning experience?
When did a project impact your personally
An example of a student response to this question was a student who liked the Fit for Purpose unit as he was able to design an implement to support his cousin who had muscular dystrophy
By Rebecca Rainima and Celinda Corsini
Capturing the Learning Process
21 September 2018
I have mentioned in previous blogs the synergistic effect that results when I work with my colleague Rebecca Rainima. To capture this we have co-created the following blog describing our latest collaborative project.
We had identified a problem: as a school that didn’t focus on traditional forms of assessment that incorporate grades and marks, we realised that a method needed to be developed to authentically monitor and track student progress towards meeting subject and pillar outcomes in a way that gave students regular feedback and allowed teachers to identify any areas of concern related to student progress and knowledge acquisition.
There was no centralised mechanism for recording teacher and peer feedback, with students demonstrating that they were acting on the feedback received. This was an issue when ensuring that report grades and final assessment marks correlated due to the influence of teacher observations made during learning units.
In addition, students were not placing high value on formative assessment tasks and a way was sought to develop student appreciation of the importance of both formative and summative tasks.
- A way to see progression of learning (shows a journey – tells a story unlike online submission of individual tasks)
- Developing accountability mechanisms for students to demonstrate their learning
- A format for addressing concerns related to group work dynamics (individual contributions to the group recorded)
- Provision of multiple opportunities to improve on project outcomes / deliverables
- Showcasing student capability and growth mindset, rather than working from a deficiency model (we haven’t got there yet, but there are more opportunities for demonstration)
- Building a portfolio that, unlike traditional online LMSs, remain with the student and can be used as evidence for future job opportunities (in particular for tasks that emulate real world scenarios like our Maths/Geography Cafe Design Project and PDHPE Social Media Campaign)
- Comments and feedback incorporated to allow students to highlight where they feel they are achieving outcomes and pillars that have not been explicitly identified by teachers (alternative ways to show demonstration of outcomes)
- To develop a protocol that shows a continuum of learning as well as providing context and purpose for immersion phase tasks
This led to the development of the Learning Process Folio.
Structure of The Learning Process Folio:
Both group and individual contributions can be demonstrated:
- It provides an opportunity to capture non-written learning activities such as photo/video evidence, with explanatory notes
- Followup reflection on learning activities can be used as a demonstration of outcomes and pillars; particularly when students ‘fail’ in a task. If students can subsequently show that they have improved in their understanding from their initial attempt, that is used as evidence for the achievement of specific outcomes.
One example of a program that can assist in this process is the use of Doctopus to effectively track student folios.
RESULTS (initial evidence)
- The students are more aware of the purpose of completing smaller tasks as they provide the foundation for future project components. As students see the value placed on all tasks that contribute to the learning process, they are beginning to see the scaffolding purpose of all aspects of the learning journey.
- The folio has meant that the focus in on the learner rather than the teacher. Here learners are the creators, curators and critics of their learning narrative. There has been student empowerment in the learning journey as they are involved in the process of demonstrating key learning outcomes
- Consistent and detailed feedback is providing students with an increased motivation to improve and act on feedback received to enhance the quality of project deliverables.
This differs from traditional LMS systems where there task ‘disappears’ into online heaven once it has been submitted – out of sight out of mind for the students. The responsibility also rests with the student to re-develop their work and demonstrate the relevant outcomes/pillars in the final product and to draw teacher attention to their improvements for re-evaluation. (see note below for specific project example)
- NESA – observational notes and feedback also provide a mechanism for detailed annotated work samples, reducing teacher time spent on necessary compliance processes.
- AITSL – Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Teachers can demonstrate aspects of the teaching standards through the use of these folios. The following standards could be relevant, depending on the nature of the learning unit and the specific design of the folio: 1.5, 2.1, 2,2, 2.3, 3.5, 3.7, 4.2. 5.1, 5.2, 5.5, 7.3. For example the ability to share student progress with key stakeholders and allowing them to monitor student journeys through folio progression (7.3).
- Student feedback needs to be sought regularly, both now and when they have been utilising this system for a longer time frame so that the ongoing effects on student progress and engagement can be ascertained.
- Continued evaluation of student work to determine ongoing effectiveness of process in improving student learning outcomes.
- Development of a system that facilitates the presentation of work and the delivery of peer and teacher feedback
- Development of an efficient process for delivering instructions and modelling processes.
Photo Note: in this current unit, students create a computer program that links with improving health outcomes for teens. Students study various aspects of adolescent health, including mental health, healthy eating and the impact of exercise and develop one of these ‘health’ areas into a game that both promotes healthy choices and directs teens in the direction of support structures where necessary. As a component of the immersion phase, students researched a health issue an were required to complete a table showing how they were going to utilise knowledge gained through research in their online game design. Some students were quite superficial in their approach and were given feedback to increase the depth of knowledge that players could gain through engaging with the game. One way that students could show how they incorporated this feedback was through call outs by characters in their game design, or in a personalised website that players can access when they reach a certain level in the game. As a result of the folio and feedback process, students are now eager to research in greater depth, and include their findings in the final product, as they are constantly reminded of their current achievement level and the opportunity to improve it.
A New Model for Self-Paced Learning
21 August 2018
What can self-paced, stage-based learning look like? After having the privilege of visiting Templestowe College and Mount Alexander College in Melbourne last month, our school invited us to think about what our own unique model of innovative learning could be like in a self-paced, stage-based framework.
My wonderfully talented, analytically-minded colleague Rebecca was tasked with getting a start on the model in the context of Science. She had some firm beliefs of what it should and shouldn’t be, and felt very strongly about not compromising core content and skills. At the same time, the model had to allow for strong student choice and voice, cater for different interests and abilities, include Australian Capabilities in addition to subject outcomes, feature AI technologies whilst still allowing for collaborative and social learning with the teacher and other students.
Very early on in our professional relationship Rebecca and I recognised we had very different strengths and talents, but the learning philosophy that was at the very core of who we were as teachers was identical. This locks us together like pieces of a perfect puzzle. When we come together to co-design learning, we make fireworks. And this was one such example. With an A3 piece of paper and a pencil in hand, and a 30 minute block, we had designed a unique pedagogical model for self-paced learning that not only encapsulated the vision and philosophy of our school, but that also created learning opportunities beyond our initial scope.
An interesting element that fueled our ideation was our school’s preference for grade descriptors over more traditional A-E grades.
In all my previous contexts we used grades, so when writing reports I simply selected one of these 5 letters relying on my prior experience and knowledge of what the letter represented. However, this year I was forced to read the descriptors multiple times, and it got me thinking: What does ‘deep’ and ‘transfer’ learning actually look like? And more importantly, have I actually offered opportunities for these levels in my courses, or was I simply using letters to translate numerical measures of achievement for tasks that did not authentically represent this continuum?
This thought led to the branching out of core subject and skills to include “deep learning projects”, where students who were motivated to go beyond the ‘surface’ could investigate sub-topics of interest in depth, and “transfer projects”, where students could use their skills and knowledge of science in contexts from other disciplines or Key Learning Areas. This in turn led to the potential for achieving other subject outcomes through Science, and then the need for each student to track their individual learning path through a personal matrix of stage outcomes that could be assessed and checked off as they progressed through their self-directed learning.
We also recognised that in this efficient way of meeting multiple subject outcomes at once, students could have the opportunity to ‘buy time’ to pursue passion projects – that could be based on subject outcomes or extra-curricular areas in accordance to their interests and strengths. At the same time, students opting for ‘surface’ learning only could meet core outcomes in a time efficient manner and then move on to pursue deep or transfer learning core units of the same or other Key Learning Areas. By the same token, the model could also cater for students requiring more time to achieve the basic core content and skills.
Our thinking is best explained and summarised by Rebecca, who I often call upon to put all my messy thoughts into perfect order:
1. Each unit would be framed around a context and have an inquiry focus
2. Each unit would have core content that all students would engage with, as this is where the syllabus and pillar outcomes would be covered (and checked off against a mapping grid) – students that complete this to a sound level would be operating at C grade level, with some form of exit ticket.
3. There would also be multiple depth project options that students can self select or negotiate based on interest. Students that complete any of these to an appropriate standard would be operating at B grade level.
4. There would be a project offered (or negotiated) with students that was integrated with another subject – this is where the transfer of knowledge would be applied consistently, with completion to an appropriate standard resulting in the student operating at A grade level (or beyond).
5. There is no requirement for students to complete a depth option – they can bank time if they finish in a shorter time frame, leading to time for exploring depth in another area that links with their SIM. This also means that students can take longer to work through core content if needed.
6. Students will have a matrix of core outcomes (linked to syllabus and pillar requirements), that are checked off, in consultation with teachers.
We of course soon realised that we had created a whole school approach to learning, and not just for science. We know it is not perfect, but we are very excited by the possibilities.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments through Twitter – please tag @profCel
Balancing the content acquisition /create learning equation.
1 July 2018
“Learning is largely sedentary and teacher directed albeit through online delivery”
I recently read this statement regarding the learning style observed in a school and, especially given my background in flipped learning, it really got me thinking. Do my classes look like this too? And have I been kidding myself all these years, believing my style was student-centred just because it was online?
To be fair, currently I do not feel I am over-using the online environment for learning in my classroom as a lot of what we do is creative and hands-on. However, I do feel that the comment above could apply to the early phases of the learning experiences I design.
Ideally, I want my students out of their chairs and ‘making’ from the very beginning. I can visualise this happening quite easily for subjects like Science and Maths, where experimentation naturally leads to discovery and theory, or for creative subjects such as TAS and CAPA. But how can it work for subjects like HSIE and Languages, where the ‘making’ is really about ‘applying’, not ‘discovering’?
For example, in our current HSIE unit students are designing an immersive experience through Ancient China and an interactive artistic exhibit on Modern China for our “Night at the Museum” event. How can they start designing the experience without any knowledge of Ancient and Modern China? Is there a way?
When I was designing the unit I felt that a content immersion phase was essential to give students a starting point and an opportunity to discover (and later pursue) their interests in the topic.
General exposure, however, does not achieve all the content requirements of the syllabus, and thus a research phase into all the subtopics of the unit was added. But as a teacher in the room, I found this phase boring. Furthermore, it was done superficially, so I don’t believe it was a valuable activity.
Next students prepared proposals for their projects. Some good ideas came out of this, but I was not blown away.
It was through the hands-on phase in a room filled with old trash (the fun constraints of budgets) that the creative concepts started to emerge. The excitement and energy was palpable as students picked up old boxes, broken toys, recycled bottles and cans, and began to visualise miniature Terracotta Warriors, ancient armour, coins, and pieces of contemporary art.
As new ideas started to form, we posed hard content questions (“I love how you want to repurpose this broken umbrella into a Dragon, but in what way does it relate to our driving question? And what will our visitors learn about Ancient/Modern China through their interaction with this?”) and noticed students running back to their computers to research in order to develop and improve their idea.
What this highlighted to me is that the information gathering and make/create phases need not be designed in such a linear manner. I must be more courageous by getting students making a lot earlier, even at the cost of them tossing out a carefully constructed Ninja Shuriken after discovering that it is a Japanese weapon, not a Chinese one (this actually happened in our lesson today!). I think I may have underestimated the student-centred content acquisition potential of the make/create phase, and the power of strategic interactions and conversations with students through this phase to drip-feed the subject knowledge and motivate them to delve deeper into their research.
Apply if: hooking them in through strengths and interests
In my last blog I discussed my commitment to doing more group work, and I shared some hesitations that had led me to avoid it in the past. Given that our college values the development of collaborative skills so much so that “Communicate and Collaborate” appears as one of the Six Pillars that underpin our in-school learning outcomes, I felt safe in abandoning traditional independent assessments and delving into group work head-on.
I wanted to do some more professional reading on group work to follow-up on some initial research I did in the December holidays; however, having lost the luxury of time, I had to be resourceful and reflect on what I already knew. I thought about my experience of collaboration in my current and previous working environments, as well as stories from friends and acquaintances about their jobs. I tried to recall observations of collaboration in workplaces I had experienced as a customer, and even thought about the workplaces I had seen represented on documentaries and TV series. There was one main question I wanted an answer to: Why is collaboration successful in real workplaces, and yet so difficult at school?
Is it because the real world is made of adults, and at school we are dealing with children and teenagers? My husband is currently completing a university degree with mature adults, and he complains about group assignments all the time. The problems he identifies are the same ones I observe in classrooms. So it’s not about age and maturity. What else is different? Roles. Positions. Job descriptions. Responsibilities.
But assigning roles is, in fact, a common practice among teachers. So again, what’s the difference? In the real world, we choose the jobs we are interested in and apply for them. There is then a selection process based on qualifications, experience and motivation. An employer wants to make sure that the candidate has the training to do the job, and ideally also some experience (so the company does not have to take the grunt of the inevitable trial and error phase of a rookie), but most importantly, an employer seeks someone with a genuine interest in the job. Passion for the role is a guarantee of commitment to the company and a willingness to continue learning and improving their skills to become even better at what they have been employed to do.
I decided to adapt this approach with Year 7 for our Night at the Museum project. I looked up role descriptions for museum exhibitions, and adapted them for our purpose. Additionally, taking advantage of the fact that our students have had a term to identify and consider their strengths through our Pathways Program, I added a section titled “ Apply if”, outlining the pertinent talents and interests associated with the role. I know when reading job descriptions for myself, I always find this type of information very direct and useful. Indeed, it speaks to me more than the details of the job itself.
I then designed a simple application form for students to complete after reading the role descriptions. This particular one (see below) brought me to tears. In answer to the question, “What interest you about the job?”, the student wrote, “That I can finally show the school what I’m capable of doing”. It reminded me of the importance of providing varied, authentic real-world learning experiences for our students so that all children, not just the academically inclined, have the opportunity to shine and feel talented, smart and successful. There are so many different kinds of smart and I see it as our duty to set up the conditions for these talents to surface, because no none should have to leave school feeling dumb.
I know having students apply for roles based on their interests and strengths is not revolutionary, but it is my first step in designing the right conditions for successful group work. I do not yet know if it is indeed going to work; however, a day before setting the job application task, a student approached me to tell me how excited he was about applying for the role of Publicist as he knew he’d be very good at it. I was puzzled, as I had not yet shown them the roles. As it turns out, he was so excited about the prospect of selecting a specific job that he had gone out of his way to access our published lesson plan and explore the link with the role descriptions. And he couldn’t wait to tell me why he deserved the job. What is astonishing about this story is that the student in question is a chronic work avoider, but the opportunity for him to focus on his strengths and interests worked as an effective hook and provided the ‘buy in’ we needed for the group project.
To Group or not to Group?
When I begin to design a learning unit, I am always confronted with the decision “group or independent work”? Days of an internal debate follow as I consider the pros and cons.
Designing authentic learning – learning that emulates real-world experiences – is always my number one objective. Even some of the most independent professions require some form of collaboration, whether it be with colleagues from within a business, or with external professionals and companies. Consequently, “group work” should always be the outcome of my debate. Yet it isn’t. Why? I think my hesitation relates to fear and issues of trust and control. With group work, I lose some control over what students do, as it is the group, not I, who sets the norms for the collaboration. Through delegation, for example, some students may miss out on a section of the project that I consider essential for their learning. I can hope that they participate in all the tasks in some way (brainstorming, helping a member when they are stuck, bouncing ideas), I can even stipulate they do so by incorporating such elements as peer feedback cycles throughout the project, but I will have no guarantee of their individual level of effort and engagement. And I will have no way of formally assessing it.
I guess this is where the notion of student ownership of learning comes into play, as well as an awareness of the limits of our responsibilities as teachers. A colleague once said to me, “A teacher-student learning relationship is like any other relationship: if the teacher is giving 100% and the student is contributing close to nothing, the relationship simply does not work”. Additionally, I need to remind myself that I cannot sacrifice the quality of the learning in favour of forcing the demotivated to learn. Using highly controlled activities and focusing on extrinsic motivators is just a Band-Aid solution that ultimately disempowers students and handicaps their learning potentials.
You have all just witnessed my most recent internal debate. So, yes, this time I am going to choose group projects over individual ones. However, I want to empower students to work effectively as a team. I am sure many educators have experienced the cheers and excitement that the announcement of group work generates in the class, only to be tormented by the “John isn’t doing any work” and “I’ve had to do the whole project myself” complaints throughout the whole experience. I have on many occasions heard similar statements in various workplaces, as adults too struggle to work in teams. I think this is because we assume that working collaboratively comes naturally. This may be true for some individuals and for some teams, but depending on the group dynamics, it is not always the case.
As I reflect on my experiences as an adult working in a group, there have been teams in which the members’ strengths, expertise, interests and personalities have complemented each other like pieces of a puzzle. In this case, the group has worked in perfect harmony without the need for norms or protocols. There have been others, instead, where a more structured and explicit approach to the group work was needed.
I want to use strengths and interests-based student data to inform decisions around groupings in an attempt to recreate that perfect puzzle team. However, I also want to equip students with the tools to work effectively when the group formation is not ideal.
My next step is to learn more about effective adult teamwork in real working environments (as authenticity is always my aim) and apply it to our context. Through this research I hope to provide students with enough information to co-construct their own group norms and working protocols in order to develop strong collaborative skills for their learning at school and for their future careers.
Please join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and comments via Twitter – link this page and tag @profCel
The Challenging World of Team Teaching
5 March 2018
Team teaching is fabulous. I call it 24/7 professional development as it offers constant opportunities for co-design, peer observation and peer feedback. However, it is also surprisingly challenging.
I have always craved working in a collaborative environment, as early on in my life I figured out how much more creative I become with the collective intelligence of a team and time and time again I have observed how ideas grow and improve when multiple brains combine. I had this privilege for the first time last term, when co-designing the learning for Year 7, but never before have I had the opportunity to teach 44 students in an open learning space with another educator by my side.
I don’t actually like the word “teach” – it evokes an image of the teacher at the front of the class directing and delivering content to a passive audience of students. If we take team teaching from this point of view, then it’s actually quite simple: two educators in a common space, each leading a group of students. The students can be divided in various ways (ability level is the most common), and these groups can change, rotate and shift over time, but essentially the principle remains the same.
But what else could it look like? This is the challenge I am now faced with. I believe that as an educator my role is to empower students to learn without me. As such, my daily brain tease is not “how am I going to teach this?” – something I find fairly simple but also uninspiring – but rather “how do I set up the conditions for the students to learn this without me?”.
This question has been the starting point of all the learning experiences, units and lessons I have designed over the years. I haven’t always achieved it, but it has certainly been my main objective. Technology has very often provided me with the tools to do this, and indeed the question was one of the many that years ago led me to develop my flipped and blended learning models. However, now I have access to a resource that is far better than technology – another educator in my learning space. How do I use this incredibly valuable resource to its potential? How can two (and sometimes three) educators work collaboratively in a learning space not to team teach, not to lead students, but to set up the conditions for deep, active, engaging, personalised, independent and collaborative, interest and strengths-based learning?
Another great puzzle to keep me entertained on my long and pleasant drive to work each day. Another great topic to discuss with passionate and curious educators like me. Please join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and comments via Twitter – link this page and tag @profCel
I’m not there yet…
15 December 2017
If you happen to stumble upon my project page on this website you will notice that most of the learning experiences I’ve designed in the last few years for my key learning area (LOTE) incorporate other subjects. I was proud of my ability to effortlessly find connections to other subjects, and assumed that the knack I had for designing interdisciplinary units would seamlessly transfer into the world of multidisciplinary learning at my new school, St Luke’s Catholic College. Fortunately, I was wrong.
I say fortunately because in not being able to simply apply what I have done in the past to the multidisciplinary environment of St Luke’s Catholic College means that I am forced to re-think the way I design learning. And I thrive on re-thinking.
One of the first tasks we were assigned to do by our Learning Coach, Kelly Bauer, was to summarise the rationale of each subject in 4 keywords. We all had to agree on the final 4 words, and the debates that arose challenged us to reflect very deeply about the thinking dispositions and skills of each KLA.
(Created by Kelly Bauer, Sharee Hughes, Rebecca Rainima and Celinda Corsini)
Engaging in the ‘why’ of each curriculum area was an essential first step to designing multidisciplinary learning as it forced me to delve deeply into each KLA and gain an authentic understanding of its true nature. It also made me realise that most subjects were a lot more complex than I had previously imagined. But what also transpired from the syllabus rationales was the zeal of the subject experts that authored them. I took note of the thoughts and concepts that drove these individuals to feel so passionate about their KLA to use as inspiration for my design process.
We then divided each KLA into major topic areas, listed the outcomes and summarised the content dot points. We taped each major topic summary on a whiteboard and began looking for links to design our multidisciplinary learning units.
I immediately found various connections but struggled to transform them into unit ideas. To trigger my thinking, I took out an ideation template I had created myself and used several times when leading workshops and presentations on PBL.
(Designed by Celinda Corsini, formatted by Jake Plaskett)
I stared at the links and tried filling out the template. To my surprise, it didn’t work. I had designed the template for interdisciplinary learning, starting from one KLA and branching out to others, but here I was trying to start with multiple subjects in mind.
I was stuck, so I started thinking back at some of the learning experiences I had designed in the past for my single subject, and the ideas started flowing, but they were all adaptations of some of my old units.
I could have continued rehashing my old projects but it was too easy and it felt like cheating. I wanted to challenge myself to create something completely new. So I went back to the links I had found, which were predominantly content based, and it got me wondering: was this the best approach? And that’s when the re-thinking started:
What type of links should we use as a starting point when designing multidisciplinary learning? Links based on syllabus outcomes (ie. subject-specific skills), topics (ie. content knowledge) or general capabilities? And what do we mean by “link” in this context? Is it something two or more subjects have in common (eg. such as exploring Ancient China in History and Modern China in Geography)? Or should we be looking for complementary aspects, thus interlocking different elements of different subjects like pieces of a perfectly fitting puzzle? Or should we simply start with an authentic real-world learning experience in one KLA and branch out to incorporate elements of other subjects, as I’ve always done in the past with my LOTE interdisciplinary units?
I doubt there is any one answer, but I am certainly curious to experiment with them all. I am eager to challenge myself in particular to attempt using general capabilities (re-imagined at St Luke’s as The Six Pillars), rather than subject content, as a starting point, and focusing on complementary links rather than common ones. Will it work? Who knows, but I’m willing to give it a go.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts and comments via Twitter – link this page and tag @profCel
“We’re not normal”: starting at a start-up school
6 November 2017
I was recently overlooked for an executive position following an interview as my ideas on teaching and learning were, and I quote, “too radical”. The job was Head of Innovation. I tried to take it as a compliment and convinced myself that being “too radical” for a job in innovation was the equivalent of being overqualified. And yet I was hurt. Why? Because I felt I had been labelled “abnormal” and “crazy”. Indeed, I was told I would be a “cultural misfit” and was advised to be more traditional in future interviews. I knew I could never become – let alone pretend – to be “more traditional”, as it goes against everything I believe in and contradicts the very core of who I am as an educator. I was overwhelmed by disappointment as I came to the realisation that perhaps my educational philosophy was so different to the norm that I was never going to fit in anywhere in education, at least not in this era. Longing to be surrounded by innovative minds and ambitions, I began to consider that perhaps I had to seek a future in a different field where innovation was the norm.
But then I came across an ad about a new start-up school in Sydney, which described itself as a “new generation school…establishing the ‘new normal’ for preschool to post school learning”. New normal? I had to be part of it. And so here I am, working with an incredible team of educators re-imagining learning at St Luke’s Catholic College, Marsden Park.
So how do you establish the ‘new normal’? First of all, it requires not being normal at all, as we established in our know column at the beginning of our journey:
Not being normal means using learning, rather than structures and systems, as your starting point. Not being normal doesn’t require tossing traditions all together, but it does mean questioning and challenging every aspect of traditional schooling and wondering if there are better alternatives. It requires relentlessly asking WHY. Why do we have to give marks? Why do we have to have subjects in silos? Why must students wear uniforms? Why do students need textbooks? If you are satisfied with the answer and believe it truly supports your philosophy of learning, keep it. Unsatisfied? Time to start brainstorming for alternatives.
Never in my career have I been so excited to go to work everyday, knowing that I will be surrounded by educators genuinely interested in philosophizing with me. Nor have I ever had the opportunity to truly act upon my deepest views about learning, and to see my ideas grow and transform with the collaborative intelligence, expertise and creativity of the team. Never have I felt the sense of belonging that I am now blessed to feel each day in this environment of like-minded professionals. Yes, we’re not normal, and we’re proud of it.
Our mission is to design authentic learning that focuses on social and enterprise skills and builds on students’ strengths, talents and passions. I am eager to share my journey through this blog (as always, without censoring the failures as these are far too valuable to omit) in the hope it may inspire and inform other driven educators who, like us, are ready to revolutionise learning for their students.
Why I left “Teacher Heaven” for PBL
24th January 2016
I used to work in Teacher Heaven, one of those schools where you walk into a class and every student is on task, where behavior issues are almost non-existent, where being a nerd is actually cool, and where students want to learn and be challenged every day.
However, in Teacher Heaven I was trapped in senior teaching. I innovated as much as I safely could, conceptualising and implementing a Flipped Learning model back in 2011, but I soon got bored and wanted to try new things. The problem was that my flipped model was so successful (in terms of final examination results) that it became untouchable. So I got up, handed the model over to my successor, and walked away from Teacher Heaven.
Nine PBLs in one year
I really wanted to try Project-Based Learning. I had been reading about it for years, and I believed this style of learning embodied my own personal educational philosophy. I was lucky enough to work closely with a PBL expert from the world renowned PBL School, High Tech High in San Diego, and so I jumped right into it and did nine PBLs in one year. It was crazy but exciting, and I learned so much that I now mentor other teachers wishing to give it a go.
When I begin designing a new PBL unit, I always do so with the intent to teach beyond the scope of my subject. Here are some examples:
- The Year 7 Picture Book Project: this was designed around the thinking dispositions of identifying patterns, adapting model sentences, and building on prior knowledge to develop language learning skills. Throughout the project students also explored the question ‘What makes a good story?’.
- The Year 10 Café Project: students took inspiration from an Italian city to re-design a local café. They learned to find the perfect compromise between their style choices and the needs and tastes of clients. They were challenged by having to present their designs digitally, but learned that aesthetics can be used as an additional persuasive tool in proposals.
- The Year 7 Service Learning Project (Religion): students explored pitching skills. After failing some components in front of a panel of judges, many learned that a great idea is nothing without a good pitch, which is an extremely important lesson for their future careers.
The most common excuse I hear from teachers about adopting new methodologies like PBL is the constraints of the syllabus. All my PBL projects are based on topics taken directly from the syllabus, the point of difference being that I teach beyond the boundaries of my subject, adding outcomes that do not appear in the syllabus. The key is to view the curriculum as a set of parameters for designing your projects, rather than restrictions stopping you from even trying. I am a firm believer that constraints fuel, rather than hinder, creativity. It is such a healthy and useful mindset to have that I have even designed a whole PBL project around it (check it out, it’s called Fashion Therapy).
PBL has re-ignited my passion for teaching. Walking into class is exciting and seeing my students so engaged is rewarding. But the thing I love most is how PBL brings out the hidden talents in our students. I hate that traditionally schools only reward and recognise ‘academic intelligence’, and it is so sad that students leave the system feeling ‘dumb’. It feels so good when my projects allow these students to shine.
For example, in my Year 10 eBook Project, students had to research an Italian historical figure, represent him/her as a hologram, and transform a ‘boring’ factual biography into an engaging narrative for children, all while exploring the potential of eBooks to change the reader’s experience (hence the hologram).
One student, who has been disengaged all year, decided to research Dante Alighieri. His first chapter starts with Dante’s mother at Heaven’s door having a conversation with God about his beloved son. It is brilliant. The language contains many grammatical errors, which we will work on through our feedback sessions, but his story telling skills are exceptional. This project has tapped into his talents and is allowing him to shine in front of me and his peers.
My PBL journey has not always been easy. Not all students and parents have embraced this methodology with open arms, but the learning has been sensational – for me and for them.
If you want to know more about my PBL projects and try them in your classes, visit my blog www.pblprojects.wordpress.com.
Why do students want low fat yogurt when you offer them double-chocolate ice-cream?
12th October 2016
I’m in a Year 10 co-ed class, in my second week at a new school,attempting one of my first PBLs. My previous school was teacher heaven: all girls, high achievers, always motivated, respectful, engaged and on task. I had been there for almost 12 years – too long, no more learning to be done for me – and thus here I was, in this class with students secretly labelled “low-ability” (which is so wrong and sadly never a secret), misbehaving, off task, and struggling to do any work independently.
I walk out and think, “what am I doing wrong?”. But what if what I’m doing wrong is actually asking myself ‘what am I doing wrong’? What if I’m not to blame, what if I’m looking for the problem – and thus part of the solution – in the wrong place. Could it be that I’m doing everything right, and that the problem is that students need time to adjust to this style of learning?
A teacher friend on the weekend said that students are like sheep. Funnily enough, they want routine, they want to do the same thing they’ve always been doing, even if they don’t enjoy it and even if the alternative is far more effective in terms of learning and engagement. Routine is safe, routine provides a predictable environment. She gave me the example of her toddler son. After meals he has plain yogurt, but one night there was no yogurt left. She offered him a Magnum ice-cream instead. He had a tantrum because he wanted “boring low fat tasteless yogurt” and refused to even try the Magnum, which, by the way, was double-chocolate! Even when the alternative is better, kids resist change.
So is this what I am experiencing when over 50% has to be constantly reminded to get back on task? Is this their tantrum for “boring low fat yogurt”? Or am I kidding myself in thinking that I am offering a double-chocolate Magnum?
I have experienced all this before. It was when I first introduced Flipped Learning in Teacher Heaven College. The students initially didn’t want it. They didn’t understand it and it took many at least 3 weeks to appreciate it, and just over a month to then be hooked to it. And yet I didn’t feel the same level of self-doubt and uncertainty that I am experiencing here with PBL. Perhaps it was because Flipped Learning was mine, it was something I had invented (admittedly at the same time thousands of others had too, but I was unaware of this at the time). I had conceived it, I had developed it for several months, I had given birth to it and I had nurtured it to almost perfection. Despite the initial skepticism explicitly and directly expressed by some students, I believed in it 100%.
So was this the problem? Did I not actually believe in PBL? Did I have my doubts about it? But why? Was it because I had not invented this pedagogical approach, and did not know it with the same intimacy as I did Flipped Learning?
It took me over two terms to figure it out, and I’m sure it’s the reason why many teachers give up and lose faith in PBL, and indeed why so many don’t even bother trying: learning in PBL looks so incredibly different that it’s almost unrecognisable. But that’s a topic for a whole new post.