Data As Tool, Not As Weapon: Part Two

Our department has announced a commitment to getting schools to use PAT Maths and Reading tools, which our school has already been using for 2 years now. I’ve had training and as part of my role, I have spent time becoming familiar with the tests, the scoring system and the interpretation of results. Data analysis isn’t something that I am naturally talented at and I have to run over things again and again until I am sure that I “get” it. Unfortunately for me, there is no substitute for this repetition as I learn mainly by having a go at things – official training only really points me in the right direction. I simply must play with numbers and results, and look to see patterns that mean something. With all of this in mind, I ran a PD session in the week before school started for interested staff to try and share some of that hard fought for wisdom.

At my school, we use the online PAT system to test the students once a year in Maths from Year 1 to 7, and in Reading Comprehension from Year 3 to 7. Because it is online, students’ results are available immediately without the manual scoring workload that was associated with the old paper version. There is a bit of administration work required before hand as I had to enter in all of the students, assign user names and passwords, add tags to sort students by Year Level, class and other key factors (EALD, NEP, ATSI) as required by our school. However, once the tests have been taken, I then take on the role of intermediary to help teachers make sense of and then use of the data gathered. Like most schools, this is only one part of the whole student achievement data picture. We collect lots of other data to inform us about how students, classes and cohorts are travelling in their learning. But each piece requires clarity and understanding in order to ensure that an accurate interpretation takes place.

PAT uses a combination of stanines, percentiles and their own PAT scoring system. Many teachers are puzzled by the concept of stanines but they are not that hard to grasp. Stanine is an abbreviation of “standard nine” where students score fall into a Stanine from 1 to 9, with 1 being the lowest and 9 the highest. Generally, students don’t progress from one stanine to another – they are moving goal posts that sit aside a calculated mean score for each year level. This calculated mean (generated by thousands of PAT scores) tracks the mythical “average” student and outlines what “typical” growth over the years should look like. Don’t get me wrong, students can and do move from one stanine to another, but this movement is more likely to show an unusual gain or decline that will require further analysis. Generally, if a student has a stanine between 4 and 6, then they fall within the average range with the bell curve being in statistical effect meaning that over half of students should fall into this range. Stanine 1 -3 indicates where students who have learning difficulties or learning gaps are, and helps to flag possible learning intervention, while 7-9 is the realm of the highly capable to gifted students. Statistically, these two groups contain the same number of students – 23 % at either end. Percentiles also can be used to peg out these levels but stanines seems to be more manageable as a concept.

pat-mThe PAT score is different, and is the way progress is measured. The Maths scale doesn’t line up with the Reading scale but they both operate in the same manner. This can be seen on the Scale PDFs (shown right) that come with a school subscription. You can see how the PAT score runs up the left hand side of the chart while the stanines shift their way across the year levels. So every score can be read across the diagram, and you can determine if this means the students falls into the average range, or has low or high achievement. When you have multiple scores for an individual, you can use the chart to map out their progress and some determination can be made about whether they are tracking as expected, making better than anticipated gains or whether progress has slowed.

However, for some teachers, this chart feels like information overload and they just are not confident enough with the scales and how they connect to the stanines to really be sure of what they are looking at. Here’s where I have made an attempt to simplify and clarify. One thing I did to aid their understanding was to annotate the median point in Stanine 5 across the year levels to show them as moving goalposts, while pointing out that progress is measured by the PAT scale.Screen shot 2015-03-10 at 8.11.00 PM

This was helpful for most but a conversation between our special education team and a frustrated teacher lead to a simpler version that I will share next. This teacher had her class data in our school WGLADS spreadsheet but pointed out that the number for either PAT result didn’t really mean anything to her. I remembered that we have introduced a colour coding system into that spreadsheet where NAPLAN bands, PAT stanines and report grades were given a simple colour system. Blue meant high achievement (as in blue ribbon!!), amber meant an alert for underachievement or learning difficulties while results left uncoloured fell within the average or acceptable range. When doing a simple filter on a class, the students can be seen to fall into these three rough categories as a starting point for addressing the learning needs of the class. So, I thought adding the colours in on the stanine segments would help a teacher at a glance determine where a result sat in the range of potential achievement. The teacher also found it hard to relate to the percentile figures (which a data lover like myself has no issue with) so I stripped them out as well. I added in red lines across the page to make it easier to read a score across the year levels. A print out of this or using digital markup tools would make it an easy exercise to map out a student achievement history, and make some determination about whether appropriate progress was being made.pat m stripped

Getting teachers to engage with this data is a pretty big step, and the easier and more palatable I can make it, the more they will seek to use it in a meaningful way. I don’t want staff thinking that PAT data is super mysterious or that you need be some sort of assessment geek to make sense of it all. Use the tools provided and the teacher can see where the class sits at that point in time. If they them wish to drill down more deeply into the individual student’s results, they can do so in the Report generation mode within the ACER PAT website. The tools in here enable the teacher a more detailed view of how a student is handling different aspects of the subject being tested. The website also gives you access to some handy videos that explain the various aspects of the PAT system in an easy to understand way, and importantly, they take the time to remind educators that this is only a snapshot in time, and that student achievement needs to be evaluated through an array of assessment and evidence. A test like this should confirm and provide evidence for what a teacher already knows – but it is not surprising that it can sometimes reveal things that can be masked in the classroom. As an example we had a Year 2 student who we believed was quite capable but was not always focussed in his maths lessons. The teacher was unsure whether he really understood the learning or was just coasting. After he aced the Year 2 Maths test, blitzing it without any requests for help, and scoring in the 99th percentile (only 1 % of all Year 2 students would be higher than him), it was clear that he needed more challenge. This was confirmation that was very useful for the school to know and bear in mind moving forward.

I hope this post helps a few people who may be still coming to terms with PAT. I am no expert so feel free to correct any errors or misinterpretations you may find. I’d like to thank ACER for giving me permission to post their copyrighted material, and my alterations of that material. There is much more I could cover but nothing beats hands on use of real student data and results, so don’t be scared about digging deep and seeing if my observations help to shed some light on this particular assessment system.

Data As Tool, Not As Weapon: Part One

When my job was advertised last year, it included an aspect that wasn’t there when I first won the position back in 2011, that of Student Data Management. It evolved to be a part of my role over a couple of years, in line with the development of our own Student Achievement Data System. We started this back in 2012 under the guidance of our then Primary Years Head of School who figured that as our system was a glorified spreadsheet, it was better that the person in charge of ICT (me) should be responsible for it. It’s grown from there and we track a lot of data now, and have student data spreading over a 3 year period that can be analysed and used to drive classroom decisions about learning programs. For us, data is a tool.

I didn’t always see data in this way. I tended to see it as a weapon used by governments and departments to drive compliance – and there is much truth in that viewpoint. But being responsible at my school has given me an insight into understanding the various measurement systems that have been set up to map student achievement and how to look for patterns and trends. It has helped me to sort out some of the hyperbole that the media likes to use when bending data to tell the stories of woe and under achievement within our schools, and to see how presenting data in certain ways can spin the story that it tells.

Here’s one trick that I noticed with NAPLAN results either sent out to schools or shown in the media. Check this fictional graph with some fictional NAPLAN scores:fake graph 1

Notice how the difference in scores really show out here. School A and even School B should be really alarmed at this extremely worrying results! But the graph only focuses on the very tip of the measurement scale. Rescale the graph to show from 0 – 550, and this is what can be seen:

fake graph 2
All of a sudden those differences at the top don’t look so drastic. So, how the data is presented to the viewer can really sway their interpretation of that data. And if you had a hundred schools lined up like this in a graph, you might struggle to tell the low achievers from the high – it is why a league table can also skew perspective, and make a school look like it is failing when in reality, it might only be a few points away from matching those ranked up in the upper echelon.

So, when I pull together graphs for the staff to view, I choose to show a whole picture and let them view the differences for themselves. After all, if we want teachers to use data to inform their teaching, they need opportunity to look for the patterns for themselves. We can set benchmarks as well, but the goal is improvement for all of our students regardless where they sit on the varied achievement scales of the assessment tools commonly used.

I’ll leave this post for now but I do want to come back and explore a few of the tools we use for our Data System.

The Paradoxical Attraction Of Sports

Sport in general has always been a paradoxical attraction for me. I grew up on a farm where my father didn’t believe in the value of sport – it was more important to be watching the sheep on a Saturday or chopping weeds in the back paddock or collecting the eggs than to be hitting a tennis ball back and forth, or chasing a red leather ball around the local oval. To be honest, I didn’t even really know that orgnaised sports even existed until I was about eight or so. I went up to stay with my aunty up at the nearby town of Booleroo Centre, where my much older cousins played Aussie Rules for the Roosters. I remember her taking me to see the games on a Saturday afternoon. My memory is hazy but I think my older cousin Andrew played for the Seniors while my younger mid teen cousin, Timothy was playing Junior Colts. My aunty also told me that the A grade team used a brand new ball for every game. I couldn’t believe that!

“What do they do with the ball after each game if they get a new one next week?” I asked in my isolated naivety.

“They use them for training or the B grade games, and sometimes they give the old training balls out to young kids if they want one,” was her reply from memory. “I’ll get Timothy to get you one.”

She was as good as her word. I got a well used football and it was the first one that I had ever owned. The hide got roughened up pretty quickly in those days so the trick was to give it a coat of brown shoe polish to restore the leather back to a better feel.

I went to a small parish school for the first four years of primary school where the numbers peaked at about a dozen kids and dwindled down to six before it was decided that it needed to be closed. The school was run by an old fashioned disciplinarian who also was in on the traditional Lutheran headset that sport wasn’t worth the bother. We won a brand new football when I was in Grade Three from the Savings Bank of South Australia for being the best small school in school banking participation or something like that, but we never got to play with it. No, it stood proudly (and pristinely) on display in all its red leather glory as a testament to our savings discipline. When the school’s imminent closure was announced, the teacher relented and actually let me and other remaining boy in the school take it out for a kick.

So, the school closed and my sister and I then went to a new school in the nearby town of Appila. This school was not much bigger than the first and had thirteen students. I was the only Grade Five in the whole school but I did become friends with the local builder’s son who asked me for the first time in my life, “Who do you barrack for?”

I didn’t know what he meant but he patiently explained about the SANFL and how if you liked footy then you had to barrack for one of the big teams in Adelaide. My sister and I talked about this serious decision, and in the end I decided I would be a Port Adelaide Magpies supporter just like my friend. It turned out that he played mini-league for the local Jamestown-Appila Magpies who wore the same black and white prison bar jumpers as their elite counterparts in the big city. That’s how he had made his choice. My sister, for reasons known only to her, chose Sturt, the Double Blues who were another popular team of the mid seventies era.

I still didn’t get to play any organised sport right up until I was sent off to boarding school in Adelaide at the age of twelve. That was an intimidating experience and funnily enough when I got there, I was told that all boarding students were expected to participate in sport! What should have been a dream come true wasn’t quite so easy though. I had acquired glasses and my parents had told me that playing football was too dangerous and besides, your glasses might get broken. So I opted for the less perilous choices of tennis in the summer and squash in the winter. My oldest son has had issues with low muscle tone and I suspect that I may have had undiagnosed issues like that growing up because I never really got the hang of doing sporty stuff. Probably not playing any organised sports growing up was another contributing factor.

But probably because of my lack of aptitude for sport, my interest and love of sport grew. I watched the school’s footy games on Saturday mornings and went to some SANFL games with my fellow boarders. I really liked watching televised footy matches as well – the VFL Winners show was great on a late Saturday afternoon as they broadcasted the last quarter of the Game of the Day from Melbourne and showed highlights from the other games. Dr Geoffrey Edelestein had bought the South Melbourne Swans and moved them to Sydney and every second Sunday afternoon, the boarders could sit down in their common room and watch the onfield exploits of Mark Browning, Silvio Foschini and Paul Morwood.

When I was in Year 11 and 12, I volunteered to be the runner for the school’s B Grade senior team. I had a few mates on the team, and the coach needed someone to run the water bottle and the messages out to the players. I felt important and close to the action. In an era where all of the best SANFL footballers ended up heading over to play with the best in the VFL, a friend wrote in my Year 12 Yearbook a message that gave me pride – “Weg, champion footy runner. Will he go to Vic. next year?”

I went off to teachers college and sport took a back seat to socialising and going out to live music venues instead of footy games. But a mate of mine had his own set of golf clubs and we would occasionally head out to North Adelaide public links for a hit instead of going to lectures. I bought a starter set so I wouldn’t have to pay for hire clubs each time and I was hooked. Golf was a game where anyone could participate – you didn’t need a team, there was no organised practice and no opponent except for the course. I remember going out with my friend one day and having the course to ourselves while the Australian Grand Prix (still in Adelaide in the mid-eighties) could be heard buzzing in the background. Golf then helped me break into the community when I got my first teaching contracts. I played at Port Broughton and got my first handicap of 36.

Then I got sent out to a little town on the Eyre Peninsula called Wirrulla and my sporting involvement bloomed to my greatest involvement ever. I played football for the first time ever (without my glasses) in the B grade because being involved was important, not if you were any good – they needed the numbers. I played golf, became club treasurer and kept a plastic bucket of change under my bed until I could get to the bank during the week. I played darts during the week, had a go at asphalt basketball in the summer, and played No 5 in the Wirrulla tennis team.

In 1990, I was given my first permanent job at Port Augusta, right at the top point of the Spencer Gulf. As well as getting heavily involved in the local golf club, I had a go at social volleyball and social basketball. One of the teachers at my school and our Aboriginal Education Worker were right into basketball and tuned me into checking out the NBA, which had games and highlight packages on late night ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). It was right in the middle of the Michael Jordan era and the Chicago Bulls were the team that everyone wanted to watch. I remember the New York Knicks being a pretty cool team and I liked watching John Starks, a no nonsense player whose style of play appealed to me. The basketball card craze hit Port Augusta schools pretty hard, and every upper primary kid had their big 3 ring folders with plastic card sleeves with their collection of cards. I had one child who was a particularly hard case in my class, who the police were constantly picking up in the streets late at night or finding him shoplifting down at Woolworths. He was hard to engage in class, and would just leave the school if it looked like I was going to pressure him into doing the learning that the rest of the class was doing. But he had a massive basketball card collection, and although I’d like to say it was a bridge for him to engaging with our learning, he would at least be content to thumb his way through his collection without doing a runner.

The ABC also featured a weekly American Football show hosted by an Australian TV icon, Don Lane. His American accent was just perfect to host this show which showed highlights from three games each week and showed the last quarter of the best one. He explained the important concepts to the curious Australian audience, and I loved it. He would have weekly prize giveaways – a Giants cap, a Raiders hoodie – all showcased with his catchphrase, “Who wouldn’t want one of these?” He promoted a book called The Australian Guide To American Football which I bought along with the follow up book The Other Side Of American Football. Now I knew what a blitz was and that a tight end wasn’t a bowel problem. I bought a Los Angeles Raider pennant as the team that I decided I liked but my girlfriend (now my wife) bought me a 49ers Starter cap which was pretty cool as well.

Eventually, the ABC took these shows off the air, I got married and moved back to Adelaide, and I lost my keenness for American sport. I still loved to watch Aussie Rules and as the VFL had become the AFL, started following the progress of first decent non-Victorian football team, the West Coast Eagles. I tried to like the new Adelaide team, the Crows, but there was something not quite right about them. When Port Adelaide finally got the chance to field an AFL team in 1997 as the Power, it was time to switch my loyalties full circle back to the team that answered that question back in primary school, “Who do you barrack for?”

Professional sport is a strange sort of beast. As a society, and generally as a worldwide phenomena, humans place sporting expertise on a very high pedestal and disproportionally reward these individuals. And when I decide to spend my time watching a team of multimillionaires play a game, or buy a team product like a cap or t-shirt, then I’m helping to bankroll the whole sideshow. Yet, does professional sport really contribute that much to the betterment of human existence on Earth? The flip side of that is that humans like entertainment (those of us in the luxurious position of being able to, as so many people on our planet are starving, living in poverty or facing a dire future. Why would they give a toss about Lebron James’ latest colorway on his signature basketball shoe?) and professional sport is entertainment in a very primeval form. A pro athlete is only as good as his or her last game, one injury could end it all, and we so often see that total life dedication to becoming elite in sport leaves some unable to do anything else when it comes to life beyond their sporting expertise. There’s certainly elements of gladiatorial Rome in any sporting arena.

It’s also a form of classic escapism. Pretending for an hour that the next goal is the most important thing in the world and that your loud cheers (even from the edge of your lounge chair) could be the thing that pushes your team or favourite player to victory. Sports journalism has perfected the art of using an athlete’s life journey as a metaphor for humankind’s struggle for purpose, for redemption, for meaning.

So, me, I like sport. Having my youngest son play basketball has re-connected me to watching more of that on TV, and reading about it and caring about what is happening in that disconnected_from_everyday_humdrum_life. Getting pay TV last year has me watching NFL and NBA again even though I can’t take to baseball or soccer. And now thanks to videogames, I’m enjoying watching the NHL which could turn out to be the most compelling one of them all for me. So the irony is that I am one of the least talented sports person around, but it doesn’t take talent to appreciate the pure escapism and spectacle of sport at its highest level.

MinecraftEDU Progress @ WGS

We’ve had our MinecraftEDU server running for over a year now, and I thought it would be a good idea to document some of the initiatives that are starting to bear fruit. I am lucky that one of our technicians is an experienced Minecraft user and enthusiast, and setting up our server and giving me remote desktop access was a breeze for him. It has taken me a while to cement the process of starting, saving and creating new maps but essentially we can have as many Minecraft “worlds” as needed, but only one of them can be running on our network at any one time. This is useful because I can designate worlds for specific purposes, give classes their own world and have some free time lunchtime worlds where the action is more free flowing and less purposeful.

I have a Digital Leader program where students volunteer their time to come along to help assist the lunchtime Minecraft sessions. I have a trolley of laptops with suitable graphic capabilities, and every lunchtime I am a travelling roadshow with 5 different buildings hosting Minecraft @ Lunchtime on their own allocated day of the week. The Leaders help with setting up, troubleshooting and technical advice. One Leaders also looks after the Teacher Controls and monitors activity, reminding players about respect and fairness. Originally we had sign up sheets because the whole concept was so popular – and it became a really good option for some of our students who struggle to make good choices out in the yard at break times. Now, we generally take the first dozen kids who are asking, balancing it up if we see someone new and asking some super regulars to take a break to fit them in. It seems to organically work without over-organisation.

Slowly but surely, a few curious teachers have asked for some support to see if MinecraftEDU could be used as part of their learning program. Our Vietnamese teacher was the first, using a new world with a Year 2 class to build Vietnamese temples and other buildings as part of cultural learning. He didn’t need much support but has remarked about the engagement with the task and how the students have looked at architectural features from images from the web and sought to incorporate them in their designs. This has also made them open to the information sharing around the purpose of the temples in Vietnamese culture provided by the teacher. Another teacher wanted her students to showcase their learning on animals (I think she was doing information reports) by reproducing a habitat or enclosure suitable for their animal to live in, along with providing key facts for visitors to read on a Minecraft sign.

Another teacher wasn’t sure what she wanted to do but was impressed by the engagement factor she saw during her building’s lunchtime session. She saw the collaboration and design, and thought that maybe we could tie it into Mathematics. For this class, I created a perfectly flat world and got the students to build their own house and fence it off as a way for everyone to experience some initial success. This was a Year Five class and it ranged from highly skilled kids who use Minecraft daily at home to students who had only ever heard of it. I set the task and reminded them that they could learn from each other and that sharing skills was something to be encouraged. The engagement was amazing, hooking in all students even the ones who could be described as quite disengaged. The sharing of knowledge went well, and there have been some great examples of working together that I did not anticipate. There is one student who has limited English skills, having missed the opportunity to be part of an English-intensive New Arrival Program class because of where the family initially settled in Australia who finds it hard to succeed in a traditional setting because the way instruction and tasks are delivered. However, in this task, she worked with three other students (and friends) who are bilingual (and proficient in her first language) and together they scaffolded the task with her, working collaboratively to produce a co-located set of townhouses, that also included new features like a linking pathway to other students’ buildings. Our plan is to link this to Mathematics by exploring the mathematical properties of each building – shape, measurement including perimeter, area and even volume.

frontviewmc

Front view of a house under construction in the flat world.

birdseyeviewmc

Bird’s eye view of houses under construction – perspective is another concept easily explored in a manipulative way in MinecraftEDU.

It is great to have as many worlds as needed but I discovered a pitfall last week. I was working in my office when two students from the Year Five class burst in with agitated looks on their face. “Mr. Wegner. Some other kids are in Minecraft and they’re destroying all our stuff! All our work is getting ruined – we need help!”

I went to investigate and found a teacher had given her students some “free time” to use the MinecraftEDU server without really knowing what it all entailed. The Year Five class had been working in their world the previous afternoon while I had been at a meeting, and so I hadn’t had the chance to save their map or change the world over to one where collateral damage wouldn’t be such an issue. In one way, I was pleased that the Year Fives viewed their Minecraft work as learning that they valued and were upset to have destroyed. But I had to work out how to minimise the damage. In the end, I got the offending (unwittingly and an apologetic teacher who didn’t know that there was more than one world) class to stop, and change over to a lunchtime world but chose NOT to save the Year five class map. That meant that it would revert back to the last time I had worked with the class on the Tuesday. It did mean that any changes made on the Wednesday when I was out were gone but it was preferable to saving a world that had the effects of rampaging Year Twos thinking they were in a fun zone, not realising that they were messing with other students’ work and learning. So, monitoring which world is up and when is key to ensuring that students’ learning is preserved.

ACEC2014 Takeaways

I’m not a big fan of the food at the Adelaide Convention Centre, so during the lunch break during the past two days at ACEC2014, I wandered off to Hindley Street in the nearby CBD in search of a quick and tasty takeaway lunch. And tonight when I got home, my wife suggested that we get pizza for a treat so on my way down to the local pizza outlet, the idea of ACEC takeaways came to me as an alternative way of reflecting on the important bits from the sessions I’ve been to over the past few days.

File:Pizza Port Melbourne.jpg

So apologies in advance to any of the speakers if this feels a bit odd and a touch disrespectful to your work but I am trying to tap into my creative side here and ensure that I commit to debriefing my brain.

Alec’s Web Cafe
Proprietor: Alec Couros
Menu includes: Canadian insights, digital identity donuts, hacked teachers

This charming eatery features a wide open dining area with glass partitions fronting the kitchen ensuring that the whole place is entirely public. Retro posters (Apple Macintosh, Napster) adorn the walls but the menu is ever changing to reflect the dining habits of today’s web consumer. Best of all, diners can walk right into the participatory kitchen and cook their own versions of the menu offerings.

@murcha Twitter Pantry
Proprietor: Anne Mirtschin
Menu includes: Wholesome country food, small nugget links spiced by influences from around the world.

The reviewer was flattered to be recognised and then cited as an inspiring factor in this fine dining establishment by Anne, which was both surprising and humbling. The Pantry featured sharing of multiple recipes, plus handy tips for preparation and cooking catering for all comers from the first time diner to the regular with their favourite table. A tasty backchannel was also available.

Humanlit Cafeteria
Proprietor: Georgina Pazzi
Menu includes: Generous serves of inspiration, new terminologies.

This cafe manages to balance the palate between classroom practicalities and leadership vision, which is no mean feat. Menu focuses on a number of tasty literacies with #humanlit being the signature dish. Cuisine is influenced by NMC2014 and personalisation. Diners will feel “in the flow” when eating here and are encouraged to scrawl their personal motto on the feature wall when leaving. I seem to remember this establishment winning awards in the past as well.

GGG (Greg Gebhardt’s Gastronomy)
Proprietor: Greg Gebhardt
Menu includes: Double serves of both safety and glimpses of the future.

This restaurant is divided into two distinct dining areas, one sponsored by the Federal Government and another solely funded by the owner himself. The Government section seemed to be populated by numerous young people on multiple devices, but the engaging menu kept them all in a safe and focussed environment. The trick seemed to around referring to the customers as Digital Citizens as the mention of Cybersafety seemed to have them seeking out more risky locations. Meanwhile, the other area is very futuristic with the menu containing many beta items, and even a few dishes that have yet to be made! Many teachers have found dining in this area to be an intimidating experience but some hardcore educators are always willing to try the hottest and newest thing on the menu.

Schrock’s Diner
Proprietor: Kathy Schrock
Menu includes: All drinks served in Google Glasses, and a wide range of tasty apps.

This place is fast paced with a seemingly endless menu of digital delights. The theme of the diner is Story as it relates to learning, with numerous videos playing on the wall projections while waiting for my meal. True to expectations, the simple treats are likely to stick in my memory for a long time to come.

The Observation Deck
Proprietor: Paul Herbert
Menu includes: Liberal doses of self deprecating humour, practical processes.

Technology plays a role here but took a back seat when I settled in for my meal. Practical nourishment for leaders is the specialty here but don’t expect to be able to dine alone. You are encouraged to give feedback to the staff here, but they will also take the opportunity to rate you as a customer. My key takeaway here was to ask diners (students) here – what were you eating (doing)? and why were eating (doing) that? That will tell you most of what you need to know about any restaurant!

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I also enjoyed sessions from Stephen McGinley, the staff from Cowandilla Primary School and a grounded, thoughtful session from Rebecca Davies that will have me rethinking my own approaches to my role at school.

With all of this dining, I’ll take a while to think off the digital calories, but it will help me fuel an improved approach to my work and my own personal learning.

By the way, if you went (or are still going) to ACEC2014, what were your takeaways? Share them in the comments, on Twitter or your own personal patch of cyberspace and send a link back this way.

Crossing Language Barriers Via Family And Photos

We have a significant number of students from African background at our school. Now that in itself is too broad a description as the students we have enrolled hail from over twenty nations and cultures across the African continent. Two of the more major groups include Somali and Kurundi families, and our Community Development Officer has been working with some of our parents in playgroups and parent group meetings on a weekly basis. The Kurundi group meets with her, along with one of our multilingual BSSO’s (Bilingual School Support Officer) offering translation support, on a weekly basis to explore things of interest in the areas of health, support services, cooking and so on. Many of these mums have had little formal education prior to arriving in Australia, or had to make do with whatever was on offer in the refugee camps. Many are keen but lacking in confidence in being highly involved in their children’s education, and one of the aspects they feel out of touch in is the area of ICT.

Through our Community Development Officer, I have been approached to help address this need with this group this term. Many of the parents have phones or cameras but don’t know how to get the photos from the camera onto a computer or into printed form. They don’t feel confident in navigating their way around a laptop so we have decided the way to cross the barriers between what their kids know and their own skills to via Family Photos. I suggested that we work on making Snapfish printed photo books with the parents where they take photos from their phones or cameras, and use the Snapfish interface to create something they will really treasure. They can learn how to use cables to download photos into folders, how to find and look through photo files, how to use the internet to look up images they might want to include (country flags, images from their homeland) and how to use web technologies that involve drag and drop, typing in text, making choices from menus, making changes to a template and a whole bunch of skills that don’t necessarily need a strong command of English in order to be able to achieve. I’m looking forward to it- and hope that our hunch about the common connections that can be made through family photos can help these parents feel more empowered about the technology that is so commonplace in Australia and in our classrooms, and they can engage with their kids more easily. I’m looking forward to receiving my demo Snapfish booklet soon to help tune these adult learners in!

 

Some Unsolicited Advice About Report Writing

Here in South Australia, it is that time of year when mid-year reports go home to parents. I know there are a number of schools exploring and implementing better ways of reporting to parents using online technology but for the majority of South Australian primary schools, the reporting process is fairly uniform and consistent. Of course, things have evolved over time. When I first started teaching in the mid-80’s reports were hand written before then being drafted by hand and then typed up by skilled teacher aides. Eventually about over the last fifteen to twenty years it has evolved into a digital template (often as a Word document) where teachers allocate grades, evaluate social skills and dispositions towards learning and then write several paragraphs addressed to the parent / caregiver about the child’s progress thus far in the school year. Every school I’ve ever been at has had its own template, and more often than not kept tinkering with layout and sections to try and improve the final product. I can remember writing a five to six line paragraph for four core learning areas and then add a twelve to fifteen line summary that drew all of the observations about the student to a fitting conclusion. I suppose it says a fair bit about the slow pace of change in schools that I am still seeing a similar end product for reporting purposes now as from when I started my teaching career.

It is the written component that many teachers find difficult and laborious. I have seen teachers who have copies of books titled “Great Report Writing Comments and Phrases To Use” because they lack confidence in their own ability to construct sentences of quality. I have met teachers who openly admit that writing is a process that they dislike immensely, which leads me to wonder how they inspire their students to embrace and enjoy the art of writing in their classroom. I have been lucky. I actually quite enjoy the process of writing and reflecting on a student’s progress, and I thought I got pretty good at it. I know this from positive feedback I have received from parents over the years, from the fact that my proof reading colleagues have rarely corrected or changed any of my paragraphs and how when I look at other teachers’ reports (as I do now in my role as a leader / line manager) I know straight away if they are of a high standard and if not, I start mentally rewriting them as I read, drawing my own knowledge of the student into play.

So, I think that there are several components to successful report writing and a few definite issues or practices to avoid. The end goal should be that after the parent has read the report, their reaction is that the teacher really knows their child. Statements that are bland and wide open leave the parent wondering if the teacher really does know their child, and if they don’t, how can they trust any of the assessment judgements made elsewhere in the report? So personalising the comments is essential. Saying the child is “a good student” is meaningless. I really like it when teachers offer examples to back up their observations – Johnny has shown great leadership skills within our classroom as he demonstrated when organising the Red Nose Day for our class. I don’t mind teachers outlining some of the topics or content covered as long as they are also commenting about the child’s learning within that.

I think it is important to strike a balance in terms of the amount of information offered. A general comment that goes on and on and flows beyond the allocated space means that the writer is struggling to be succinct, and if I look closely might also contain doubled up phrases, overly descriptive language and use of meaningless cliches. The flip side is when too little is written and tactics like excessive paragraph breaks and a larger font are used to disguise the lack of written reflection. When editing reports, I would rather deal with the former as excess can always be tightened up and pruned back. I have generally found that these teachers really do know their students but struggle to contain everything they have to say neatly into the space provided. Too little gives an impression that the teacher does not see fit to elaborate about this student or that maybe they haven’t taken the time to really get to know that student.

Some teachers’ solution to the report writing blues is to adopt a formula. This can be helpful when used as a guide of things they want to cover within the report but the extreme version is where a cookie cutter report is written and the names of the students are just swapped in and out with some slight variations in choice of adjectives. The give away for these is when gender pronouns do not match the student, where another student’s name is still present or just the gnawing feeling of deja vu as I plow through the class set. (Really, every student in this class is a pleasure to have in the classroom and completed their mid term book report to a reasonable / good / great / amazing standard!) Following a formula is smart as long it isn’t copy paste and again, I can tell if the teacher is really reflecting on what the child has achieved:
Polly has structured her written texts well this semester. She frequently makes very strong connections between her experiences and the texts she is exposed to and writes about them with clarity. Ways for Polly to continue to promote improvement in her writing include elaborating her points further, explaining her position in finer detail and reviewing her usage of apostrophes of possession.
You can see that this sequence of sentences can follow a similar pattern for every student in the class BUT they have to be written individually. After all, each student has different strengths, abilities and ways of approaching learning, and will also have very individual goals to focus on moving forward.

Then there is also the power of positivity. I agree that sometimes parents need to know the plain unvarnished truth about their child’s efforts towards learning but there is still a way of doing it that avoids insulting or straight out negativity. Take this example:It is important that Harold understands the value of asking for help or clarification as he often waits for the teacher to notice his errors or uncertainty, while a more pro-active approach will see him getting help sooner and making better use of time.
This points out the issue but instead of laying blame at the student’s feet, offers a productive way forward. Parents will appreciate that.

Finally, a lot of teachers like to address the student directly in the last sentence or two. I don’t mind this tactic even though the report speaks to the parents as a focus, and I have done this myself on a regular basis. But as it finishes up what you are saying, make it strong and make it count. Don’t write something insipid: Good luck – I know you can do it! Be personal and memorable: Fergus, do not settle for average. Use your diary, apply yourself and see the change. We wish you the best for high school.

So if you’ve been writing reports, proof reading reports or are still to tackle them, remember that in many households, these documents are hoarded and treasured. You should feel proud of what you have written and want it to stand as a high quality example of teacher assessment of learning. Remember that this post is only from my perspective and should not be held as a definitive set of standards, more as food for thought and a plea to keep the quality high.

oldreport

photo credit: canonsnapper via photopin cc

From Entertainment To Learning

There are many factors that weigh into how quickly change of cultural mindset can occur. And as I’ve said before, at a school as complex as the one I work at, these factors are not easily or quickly countered. My school is considered as catering for a disadvantaged community but that does not mean universal neediness. It just means the range of what kids have access to in their home life is stretched out far wider than the average school. We have students who come to school hungry so teachers give them breakfast but also have kids who get dropped in Mercedes or BMWs. We have students whose parents never come for parent teacher interviews or avoid answering on their mobile if they see the school is calling, and we have kids who go to Kumon, and Saturday morning “Maths Wizard School” and then top it off with ethnic language school in the afternoon. We have kids who have no internet or computers and maybe a second hand parent owned mobile phone to kids who have laptops, iPads, Minecraft accounts, X Boxes and Playstation 4’s. We have kids who use phones and the web totally unsupervised and with free reign to kids who are strictly supervised during homework time to ensure that the internet is only being used for studious purposes.

It’s a different sort of disadvantage to the one described by Sugata Mitra in his “hole in the wall” research, where the kids involved had no access to education, had no access to social services and no technology of this kind in their world of poverty. When I heard him speak I kept thinking about our students and how regardless of social circumstance and simply because they live in an urban, Australian environment, are not as devoid of the infiltration of the commercial world of entertainment as those kids in rural India. I kept thinking that it was more likely that the “hole in the wall” kids would be self-learning, while the emotional influence of entertainment-heavy culture would have my students making different choices if the roles were reversed. And that culture is all pervasive – game shops, Foxtel, billboards, fun apps, fast food tie-ins, Snapchatting, Facebook games – it seems to be all about gratification dressed up as fun, and that combination is a hard way to combat.

I am convinced that for a sizeable section of my school student population, digital technology is simply about access to entertainment and socialising. It is a default mindset. It is the mindset that makes teachers wary about having personal mobile phones in the classroom, that keeps the most liberal minded technology leader cautious about taking off the web filtering. It affects teacher’s headspace about giving up control – the fear that by allowing access to technology, students will default to what entertains rather than what will challenge and educate. We willingly concede to the “fun factor” when teachers push Mathletics and similar online learning platforms as being good use of technology time. It is harder to push through to meaningful and targetted use of technology for learning, to move up from the lower rungs of Bloom’s Taxonomy and ensure that students are engaging in challenge and purpose. I’m not saying that games can’t be challenging and purposeful – but without skillful learning design scaffolding the process, the entertainment gratification urge pushes itself to the forefront.

So this is a issue that I struggle with a lot. How to move use of technology from entertainment to learning. To get teacher headspace in a place where laptops and iPads are not “free time” rewards but valuable tools for documenting and constructing learning. Is anyone out there feel like they are winning this battle in similar circumstances to me? I’d love to have a conversation – here or anywhere online.

Tensions

During Ewan McIntosh’s keynote on Wednesday, I posted the following reaction to Twitter:

For me, the theme of #EduTECH is tensions – between pedagogies, between possibilities and constraints, between curriculum and creativity…

I’ve thought about tensions in education before in the past. But Ewan’s discussion about tensions and contradictions, followed by Tom Barrett’s presentation on creativity which also talked about tensions, started some contemplation within my own mind about how I go about my own learning and then transferring that to my professional life as an educator and leader. This post will be an attempt to sort some of that out and to address some of my past frustrations in a new, more informed light. I don’t want to rehash Ewan’s address here but this great visual presentation from Cathy Hunt aka @art_cathyhunt sums up the key ideas.

I’ve been looking back at the almost three years that I’ve been at WGS with a feeling of frustration in a number of areas. I know that the school is immensely complex and challenging, and I have been on a steep learning curve since arriving. However, there are a lot of times when I feel like I haven’t made that much of a difference to the place, or that the school hasn’t moved to places that it should have under my guidance. I remember applying for the job and talking to another ICT peer here in Adelaide about the opportunity. He suggested that the position would be ideal – a brand new school, no previous incumbent or set ICT directions, a blank canvas, so to speak professional opportunity wise. I had visions of heading up a drive of innovation where technology would be embedded in rich and meaningful ways, where connected staff planned and provided leading edge learning for their students and there would be outside recognition of these programs.

Well, WGS is innovative and doing a great job catering for the needs of its students and I am privileged to be part of a large progressive leadership team, but it is my own contribution that caused me frustration. Everyone else seemed to have their act together and knew what they were doing while I (in my mind) struggled to be clear about directions, about making the right decisions and most of all, about getting teacher buy in for the essential role of technology in re-imagining learning for our students. Maybe it is part of the reason I started to retreat from participation in educational social media – I felt like I didn’t have successes to highlight, that every connection seemed to be on track with their professional programs but me. The evidence was in front of me – educators who used to be just like me when I was a coordinator / classroom teacher were heading up important leadership roles, being headhunted to showcase their answers at conferences and being referenced as thought leaders in publications and books. Not that I wanted any of that – but I didn’t want to feel like the only one who feels like they don’t know what they are doing.

There are two Hugh MacLeod cartoons that speak to me above all others. One is aspirational:

And the other is to help me feel good:

So, to to hear Ewan and Tom talk about tensions made me reflect about the tensions I experience in my daily professional life. There are plenty of them. There is the tension between ensuring that there are enough devices available for use and the fact that any devices can be used to enable student learning at a deep level. There is tension between dealing with urgent behaviour management issues at the expense of more big picture planning – the former robs the latter of time, but leaving the former means that extra thought for the latter could well be wasted. Tensions exist across the school – teachers are encouraged to use structure to keep students on task and because looseness can descend into chaos within a minute, but over-structure promotes disengagement and constrains freedom of choice for learners. I personalise learning for teachers at PD sessions but it is difficult when the range stretches from Twitter enthusiasts to teachers who struggle to sign up for an online account – mirroring the broad range of our students.

I have probably achieved a lot more in my role at this school than I am prepared to give myself credit for. But I don’t like to use valid reasons as excuses, so I need to open up myself to more sharing, more consultation with my colleagues and making networked learning a key part of a leadership and role resurgence that is necessary for both the school, my colleagues and myself.

EduTECH 2014 – Virtual Version

Cross-posted from my staff blog where I set up a Virtual EduTECH page for interested staff who wanted to know a bit more about the conference that the select five of us who went got to see. Putting this together showed me that sometimes someone else does say it better, than curation is a great way to assemble a shared experience and favouriting Tweets as the conference goes along is a heck of a lot easier than trawling back through 4 days of a #hashtagged Twitter stream. I think that if you didn’t get to go to this conference then a thorough exploration of the stuff assembled below will go pretty close to making you feel like you knew what was happening and the big ideas that flowed through the conference and out through the digital ecosphere.

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Sugata Mitra - From a hole in the wall to the cloud
Article that summarises most of the ideas from his keynote.
He talked a lot about the concept of SOLE (Self Organising Learning Environments) – link to Tumblr showcasing examples and ideas.
Here is his talk summarised in cartoon form.


Anthony Salcito – Lead a Learning Revolution

Jenny LucaDigital Literacy  Enter in your school email address to access her slideshow

Judy o’ConnellWeb 3.0

Sir Ken Robinson – Learning To Be Creative
Keynote summary including links to videos shown.


Ewan McIntosh – Agile Leadership in Learning


Ewan’s talk summarised via Storify by corisel.

Gary Stager – Making School Reform

Tom Barrett – Creativity and the Australian Curriculum

Dan Haesler – How to use technology to enhance student engagement, motivation and wellbeing

Joyce Valenza – Hacking the Library

Greg Whitby - Developing a contemporary model of learning & teaching for a connected world

Ian Jukes – Aligning technology initiatives in the age of disruptive innovation

Sue Waters, who works for Edublogs, took it upon herself to curate the photos, videos, tweets and blogposts into Flipboard creating a digital artifact that delves even deeper than this virtual line up here. Check it out – it is a real treat and shows the power of crowdsourcing showing that it is possible to see things from other people’s point of view. CHECK IT OUT!