Using Means of Participation routines for successful online learning

Teachers could consider constructing and using routines to encourage student participation for successful online learning. Because these routines help create certainty for students and teachers alike and thereby efficiency with transitions that occur during a lesson.

As Peps Mccrea says in his wonderful book Motivated Teaching. For teachers ‘routines strip out redundant decision costs, reduce the amount of novel information that we have to process, and make the most of our ability to think less about things we repeatedly do so we can focus on what matters most: our kids and the content.’

Mccrea goes on to write ‘this is why building motivation is best done collectively. Every colleague that is in alignment multiplies benefit for both you and your students, (and them and their students).’

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion blog wrote about how a USA school, Memphis Rise Academy, helps teachers build a vibrant online culture.  Upon reading the blog I contacted the school to ask if they were happy to share their ideas, and to my delight they were. I have attached their Virtual Participation Methods document within this blog. As the TLAC blog states the first step to a vibrant online culture, then, is defining the Means of Participation you will use and sharing details on execution. What are the options and how can teachers do them well?

That’s why this excellent document from Memphis Rise Academy is so valuable. The school has defined the Means of Participation its teachers can use, named them and outlined details of how to do them well. They’ve even included model phrases teachers can employ in using them.

At my school we have a permanent online learning platform (you can read about here https://failthinklearn.wordpress.com/2021/02/10/offering-online-learning-as-an-option-for-student-schooling/) and we have printed the Virtual Participation Methods and hung it on the wall next to the teacher to serve as a poster prompt.  The icons on the left get used by teachers in their materials, lesson plans and slides if they use them, to remind themselves of which method they’ve planned to use and when. By way of example these little icons remind the teachers that on this slide they are asking participants to chat and then Cold Calling someone whose ideas they appreciated from the chat.

Therefore, for teachers presently or in the future teaching online, these means of participation routines for successful online learning may be really useful. Edit and adapt and please share any improvements with me, I would love to see what you have developed.

Memphis Rise Academy’s Virtual Participation file

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Leading with humility, be humble.

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Humility is a virtue, an actionable value, a habit that puts the collective needs of others before the needs of oneself. The content of this blog is equally applicable for leaders within schools, teachers and students as leaders. As we will see the virtue of humility, encourages and facilitates habits of success that promotes leader, teacher and student learning.

Self-serving or self-sacrifice? Servant leadership starts with humility

‘Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.’ Thomas Merton.

Those that are well versed at practicing humility tend to see their position of leadership differently. Humility seems to be countercultural in today’s society, where media seems to embrace and reward those that thrust themselves forward into the limelight, as individuals thriving on recognition and on seeking to be liked by the masses. As it is the antithesis of pride and entitled thinking, humility allows for the expression of kindness to occur. Indeed, leaders should be as St Paul wrote about Jesus’ servant leadership looking to emulate the following and ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’ Philippians 2:3-4. So, leaders need to be countercultural and be humble. As author Rico Tice writes in his book Faithful Leaders ‘Too often leaders have been harsh or arrogant or distant in their leadership. Not willing to listen to concerns and that has caused immeasurable pain to people. They have sent away those that told them what we did not like to hear.’ Leadership therefore should be directed by the interests of others. Don’t look to be served, but to serve.

Intellectual humility:

A successful leadership style is one of engaging others’ thinking, exercising intellectual humility, ultimately leveraging off the collective wisdom of others. This suggests that to be humble is to be open to new ideas and ways of knowing. Thus, humility involves the willingness to learn from others. Perspective taking is important as it reduces the likelihood of blind spots emerging and helps equip leaders to make informed judgements for decision making, because they have gained insights into the thinking of teachers and leaders. As a consequence, humility lets teams feel equally important and valued.

When hiring for a leadership role, you may be overlooking one of the most important traits of top performers: humility. Intellectual humility should be the number one attribute to look for when hiring teachers as it signals that they are open to continuous growth and learning.

So how do leaders set about cultivating humility?

  1. Don’t let your position of authority let you think you know more than those you lead.

Leaders who think they know more that those they lead deprive themselves of the collective wisdom and knowledge of the community. In addition, leaders who rely on a “power over” approach, suppress honest feedback and risk taking from those they lead. Humility is about appreciating something greater than oneself.

2. Humble leaders listen well.

True leadership shows itself in humble service. As Rico Tice writes ‘Listening requires being proactive: inviting those who we know are critical of us to have a conversation with us, in which we work hard to understand them and see if and (probably) where we need to change. We might not agree with everything they say, but we need to be humble and ready to listen and change. Those who are different from us can expose our casual assumptions and our complete blind spots. Those who are not our friends may well find it easier to speak to us, for they have less to lose if we respond badly. Never assume you know enough about someone or something or a particular situation without listening and listening hard first.’

3. Develop the habit of being honest about our mistakes.

Admitting and talking about our mistakes as leaders is an important component of relational transparency and helps build trust with those we lead. This act of humility helps us avoid overconfidence. When things go wrong, humble leaders admit to their mistakes and take responsibility.  A humble person not only admits to making mistakes; they seek to understand what they did wrong and what they should change going forward. Don’t be afraid to say the following: “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” “I am sorry” and “Please, forgive me.” Many leaders fear that their vulnerability will diminish their authority in the eyes of those they lead. In practice, people admire and emulate leaders who have the strength and courage to admit their mistakes and ask for help.  Leaders who are “human” promote greater ownership and responsibility from those they lead.

Further to this there are institutions cultivating acknowledging admitting when they are wrong.

Julia Rohrer a personality psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, is trying to get her peers to publicly, willingly to admit it when they are wrong. It’s been fascinating to watch scientists struggle to make their institutions more humble. And I believe there’s an important and underappreciated virtue embedded in this process. I’ve come to appreciate what a crucial tool it is for learning, especially in an increasingly interconnected and complicated world. Social psychologists have learned that humility is associated with other valuable character traits: People who score higher on intellectual humility questionnaires are more open to hearing opposing views. They more readily seek out information that conflicts with their worldview. They pay more attention to evidence and have a stronger self-awareness when they answer a question incorrectly. Most important of all, the intellectually humble are more likely to admit it when they are wrong. When we admit we’re wrong, we can grow closer to the truth. We need more intellectual humility for two reasons. One is that our culture promotes and rewards overconfidence and arrogance. At the same time, when we are wrong — out of ignorance or error — and realize it, our culture doesn’t make it easy to admit it. The problem with arrogance is that the truth always catches up. Our ignorance is invisible to us and that is why it’s so hard to see our blind spots. To be intellectually humble doesn’t mean giving up on the ideas we love and believe in. It just means we need to be thoughtful in choosing our convictions, be open to adjusting them, seek out their flaws, and never stop being curious about why we believe what we believe. Again, that’s not easy.

4. Embrace uncertainty as certainty kills curiosity.

David Didau argues in his recent book Intelligent Accountability, that schools are incredibly complex institutions where it is impossible for school leaders to have certain knowledge of the best courses of action or the results of the decisions they make. This being the case, Didau suggests that the only reasonable alternative is to act with tentativity and humility. Leaders need to accept that certainty is likely to lead to poor decision making. When we’re certain we stop thinking. After all, why would we continue to think about a problem when we’re already sure we know the answer? This tends to result in seeing whatever we want to expect to see and failing to notice new or surprising opportunities. Embracing uncertainty doesn’t mean you should endlessly prevaricate, instead it means accepting that decisions are always imperfect, made with incomplete understanding and should be subject to change when additional information comes along. An effective school leader will seek out sources of collective intelligence. In order to allow those around you to give their opinions honestly, you must encourage professional scepticism. This is a mindset which is willing to accept new ideas but will always be prepared to ask critical, searching questions. All too often, the prevailing culture in schools is one which discourages this kind of professionalism, but the rewards of allowing others to pose hard questions and point out potential mistakes is that you’re far less likely to go too far astray. With these thoughts in mind, your department, school or trust is perhaps ready to explore what it means to operate a surplus model of school improvement. Therefore, with humility comes wisdom.

Matthew Evans sums up the dangers succinctly in his blog ‘We readily fall into certainty as we are primed to do so. And yet, holding on to doubt – pushing ourselves to countenance the notion that we probably do not know all of importance there is to know – may make our actions more cautious and wise. Certainty feels good, but resisting its emotional pull may be prudent as we probably don’t have the full story.’

5. When chairing or participating in meetings or when having conversations with individuals embrace the gift of constructive conflict.

Humility promotes different viewpoints and therefore eventuates in better decisions as leaders open themselves to learning as they seek the truth. As Viviane Robinson writes in her superb book Reduce Change To Increase Improvement ‘the key is to listen carefully and value the pushback rather than to downplay it or explain it away.’ Leaders will gain the best outcomes when they foster the trust which allows constructive conflict.

6. Learn from the All Blacks rugby team who have the most successful winning percentage of any professional sporting team over time.

The All Blacks have a culture that governs that no one is better than the team and the team always comes first. This other centred culture is expressed as the players sweep the sheds going by their mantra espoused in James Kerr’s excellent book Legacy, of never being too big to do the small things that need to be done. Before leaving the dressing room at the end of the game, all the players stop and tidy up. They literally and figuratively ‘sweep the sheds’ an example of personal humility, a cardinal All Blacks value. As the book promotes “many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us.”

7. Humility is inclusive and our choice of pronouns demonstrates this:

As Timothy Wright ex Headmaster of SHORE school in Sydney, recently shared on LinkedIn ‘When we communicate with our people what is the message about success we send by our choice of pronoun. The CEO or executive whose speech or written communications is littered with ‘I’ or ‘me’ and points to ‘their’ ideas is sending the message they see themselves as the source of success. On the other hand when we choose to say ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ we communicate the high value we place on the team and how we value the contributions of colleagues. As Jim Collins wrote all those years ago, great leaders are fiercely focused and consistently humble.’

Here are a set of questions to ask of ourselves as leaders?

Will your leadership be marked by self-seeking or self-sacrifice?

Am I leading in service of my team?

Am I an empathetic leader?

Do I credit others?

Do I admit to mistakes?

Do I accept constructive feedback?

How well am I listening?

Am I actively inviting those who I know have a different perspective from me or even would be critical of me, to share their insights and concerns with me?

Is there any part of leadership that I need to approach differently (or even lay down for a while) in order to cultivate a more servant hearted attitude?

And, as ultimately, we need a balance between convictions and humility, How do you maintain an open mind toward others and yet, at the same time, keep your strong moral convictions?

Can humility be mistaken for indecisiveness? Can humility be a ‘decision stopper’ because we are trying to please everyone?

No, in its very essence, being a humble leader recognises the strength of constructive conversations, asking hard questions and researching what’s best for our students and staff. Being a humble leader at its core requires the leader to put themselves second, to make sometimes difficult decisions and be confident in those. Being a humble leader ensures the process of leadership and decision making has been thorough, it has asked the right questions and has included others’ opinions. Being a humble decision maker, recognises one must lean on others experiences and knowledge, and use them to help the process be successful. Being humble results in stronger more informed decision making and equips leaders to deal with complex challenges because they have invested in increasing relevant bodies of knowledge.

There is a book dedicated to investigating the virtue of humility, that I would recommend and drew inspiration from for this blog, and it is titled Humilitas by John Dickson.

The virtue of humility, encourages and facilitates habits of success that promotes leaders, teachers and students learning. Indeed, strong inclusive leadership requires intellectual humility by suspending one’s ego and considering others’ views as this often leads to new knowledge and methods. Opening yourself up to the vulnerability of being wrong, receiving correction and asking others how they think you could do better. Humility piques curiosity, invites community, unleashes learning, builds trust, maximises other people’s potential and can inspire teams to great heights. Humility applied to convictions does not mean believing things any less; it means treating those who hold contrary beliefs with respect and friendship. There is something deeply attractive about seeing someone who is genuinely, authentically putting others’ interests before theirs. Our attitude towards leadership will always show itself in the way we treat those who can do little for us. As they say, you can tell a great deal about a person by whether they notice and speak to the least important person in the room. It is important therefore to recognize that leaders who are humble give those they lead the gift and freedom to grow into their true selves and to be fully human. In view of this, it could be meaningful in the context of schools to consider the inclusion of humility as a leadership concept in the development of school leadership programs.

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Building a Coherent Curriculum by Reid Smith

I was privileged to participate in a webinar this week given by Reid Smith. Reid Smith is the Head of Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction at Ballarat Clarendon College, a school that has improved their approach to curriculum over the past 20 years. This blog shares the content of the webinar on Clarendon’s improvement journey toward building a coherent curriculum. To view the webinar, you need to be a member (it’s free to join) of ThinkForwardEducators and you can then access the video here https://thinkforwardeducators.org/meetings-for-members/reidsmith-apr-2021

The content delivered in Reid’s talk, the Clarendon approach, should really be what graduate teachers are taught as they enter our profession. Just as the Michaela Community School have, I believe that a book needs to be written on the Ballarat Clarendon School improvement journey, so that the profession can be the beneficiary that leverages off their collective wisdom.  

But first, a little more on Reid Smith, he is also a primary teacher working in a school in regional Victoria, Australia. He is also a PhD candidate at Latrobe University studying the relationship of knowledge accessibility and reading comprehension and has just released a paper on that topic and I encourage to look at that here too.

What follows now is basically a transcript of the presentation. For me I always prefer reading print (blogs) to podcasts or video as I know it is easier to go back and find things that I want to revisit in a blog post.

He started his presentation, building a case for a coherent curriculum, and gave an explanation of why it is important to have a coherent knowledge rich curriculum.

Reid started with a definition of curriculum: Curriculum is the learning experiences that are planned for learners in an educational setting.

There is both an intended and enacted curriculum:

  • intended curriculum is that which is documented; the intended teaching and learning; so essentially what we intend to teach in the classroom, and have the students learn
  • enacted curriculum is what actually happens in the classroom. And the hope is that the enacted curriculum matches the intended curriculum.

When thinking about curriculum at Clarendon they tend to consider four broad characteristics of a knowledge rich curriculum that Tom Sherrington articulated here

  1. Knowledge provides a driving, underpinning philosophy.

Having a great level of knowledge has many benefits. Students and people who have a greater level of knowledge are more capable readers and they tend to be able to comprehend more difficult pieces that are related to that knowledge. We know that knowledge is associated with more beneficial social outcomes for students. We know that when students have a reserve of knowledge means that they are able to gain more knowledge. This notion that when students have stores of knowledge they are able to pick up new knowledge more quickly.  However at Clarendon, knowledge is not just a stepping stone to get to somewhere else. Clarendon actually thinks that accumulation of knowledge, of its history, the world, its people, its science and its future is actually something that’s really a valuable end in and of itself. The school values knowledge; it is the birthright of our students to have access to the knowledge of our various civilisations and they have a right to the knowledge of a world that has accumulated over time. Knowledge is really Clarendon’s driving underlying philosophy. It is what Clarendon is aiming for from Kinder through to Year 12.

  • The knowledge content is specified in detail.

Reid said, the knowledge rich curriculum is an attempt to nail down what it is that the teachers will teach and the students will learn and do within our classrooms. We like to be clear about what the students are learning because we like to think that teaching causes learning and we want to be intentional about how our teaching is going to cause learning from our students.

  • Knowledge is taught to be remembered, not merely encountered.

Reid continued to say, when Clarendon puts together the knowledge rich curriculum, they are trying to avoid knowledge in encounters, where we hope the students might pick up some knowledge as we go along. Clarendon want to have the students amass a really specific body of declarative and procedural knowledge, in a way that is planned and sequenced properly. Clarendon wants knowledge to be remembered, instead of knowledge as being experienced as just encounters. Clarendon tries to embrace learning from the point of cognitive theory. It doesn’t want a series of knowledge encounters that may be experienced differently from one student to another. They really want something that is designed to help students store this knowledge information in their long-term memories so they can build on it later.

  • Knowledge is sequenced and mapped deliberately and coherently.

Clarendon tries to give thought to the optimum sequencing of knowledge to deliver over time to students. So, the question becomes how can we best build this secure base of knowledge with our students, to provide them and to develop with them an understanding of concepts and ideas that actually endure and can be built upon over time, that’s not lost from one term or one year to the next, so that students have a store of accumulated knowledge over time.

When talking about a knowledge rich curriculum, sometimes people tend to pigeonhole knowledge as just facts learnt in isolation. For example in History the learning of dates, and who was the ruler at certain times and things like that etc. Clarendon sees knowledge as a broader conception of what knowledge is. Clarendon sees knowledge as fitting into two broad categories. The first is declarative knowledge, this idea of knowledge that is about knowing that something. For example knowing that the first element in the periodic table is hydrogen. So there is a store of declarative knowledge, things that you know about.  Then there is procedural knowledge which is more about knowing how. So ways about going about things, you may think about the skills that students need to know in order to put together a topic sentence, structure and essay, they might know how to construct a study timetable etc. And the knowledge rich curriculum is designed to help students to be able to develop skills in creativity, problem solving and in critical thinking. Dylan Wiliam encapsulates this well “the main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways because what is in their long-term memories makes their short-term memories more powerful.” (2018)

What actually Dylan Wiliam is saying is that the accumulation of knowledge allows students to think creatively, problem solve and think critically. Greg Ashman succinctly puts it as “knowledge is what you think with”, that is you need this store of knowledge to be able to think critically and analyse, discuss, evaluate and to be consumers of that information.

Because the idea that you can sub-contract a knowledge base to your phone just doesn’t work. In order to be able to use knowledge, in particular new knowledge to solve problems, the information needs to pass at least through your short-term memory. So, you can’t have a knowledge store that sits primarily on your phone, computer, Google or the internet. In order to be able to think critically you need to be able to have that knowledge available, and the more that knowledge is available in your long-term memory the more free space you are actually freeing up in your short-term memory in order to process this information.

Now when we consider what knowledge that we want to teach our students, the difficulty is that not all knowledge is equally valuable. A strong guiding principle for Clarendon is this idea of powerful knowledge developed by Michael Young. Michael Young (2014) describes knowledge as being “powerful” if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables people to envisage alternatives, if it helps people think in new ways. So, operationalising it in terms of our knowledge rich curriculum it means that there is ‘better’ knowledge in some fields that is more ‘powerful knowledge’ – i.e. more likely to feed forward into future learning and life. And one way to think about this, is to what degree will things that students learn now feed forward into what they will be learning in the future. So, how well will the text that we are studying in English, how well will the context that we are studying in PE, how well will the things that we are actually investigating in Science, feed into future learning and their life beyond school. The more ways that knowledge might throw forward to future uses is an indicator that knowledge is more powerful knowledge. There is another part of Michael Young’s work that is really crucial and this underpins some of the ideas around Clarendon’s low variance curriculum, and that is that all students deserve access to powerful knowledge. There should not be a reserve of knowledge that just sits for the privileged few such as the academically able. All kids have a right to knowledge. All kids have a right to the A grade curriculum if you like, rather than the B grade curriculum.

Whenever we have differences in knowledge we are going to have to select what knowledge to teach. The idea of what knowledge to select to teach is therefore a really important one, and also fraught with danger too, as there are some things that will not be chosen to be taught in the curriculum.

An important idea from Richard Elmore is as he states, “The limiting factor on the learning of many children are the expectations of the adults in their lives.” This comes to the idea of being ambitious! When selecting content that you are going to teach, be ambitious! Students will sometimes surprise you with what they are able to work with. When you have more ambitious and interesting content it means you can do more with it. For example the persuasive piece where they are looking at the laws of an ancient society and whether they are fair is perhaps more interesting and useful than deciding whether a school uniform should be worn or not.

Low variance curriculum:

When we think of curriculum variance we are talking about the variance in taught and learnt content as well as variance in instruction. We need to think of a range, from a continuum of lots of variance (complete variance) to one of next to no variance. You have horizontal variance that exists i.e. how similar or different is the curriculum received between different classes of the same English cohort across the six Year 8 classes. Whereas, the vertical variance is the similarity or difference that is occurring year on year within the same school. So, say between Year 7 into Year 8 in 2020 and then again between Year 7 into Year 8 in 2021. At one end of the continuum in every classroom experience there would be a no variance situation where the curriculum content and instruction is exactly the same between classes. Whereas in a complete variance end it is the opposite, nothing is similar, no instruction is shared, you don’t have a common understanding of what it is students are to learn, there is no sharing of instructional resources, no same end point in curriculum coverage. In practical terms these two extremes don’t exist, and in reality at most schools the extremes tend to be from low variance to high variance.

In a high variance school from one year to the next, class teachers would have very few  shared outcomes that would be more specific than we are teaching Romeo and Juliet or learning about the solar system. There would not be a common understanding of what it takes for the learning to be successful, or what students should know, write, think about or be able to say as a result of the learning. Often the assessments that would occur in a high variance school would be negotiated by teachers right at the end of the process. So, we would all teach our classes and come up with an assessment that could be a conglomeration of the things that we have taught. An assessment that wouldn’t feature things on there that I’d not taught in my class, the assessment would make sure that there were things on there that other classes had taught, and I would make sure that there was nothing on there that I hadn’t taught. On the very low variance side of things you have groups of teachers who have agreement about a unit’s purpose. That are very clear about what the students should know, be able to say and do as a result of that unit of learning and how students demonstrate the things that they know. Often that is achieved through significant shared materials, and at the pointy end of that scale through student booklets that have been put together for all the classes, containing instructional materials, and agreements of instructional strategies that you are going to use. e.g. containing the Docklands Primary school method of teaching algebra. In the middle you have a continuum of somewhere that sits between the two, and most schools are somewhere within that range of low variance to high variance.

Reid emphasised the benefits of a low variance approach where there is more similarity of instructional practices between classrooms more similarities about what we want to come about as a result of the low variance approach for our classes.

Why a low variance approach?

To provide an opportunity for teachers to share good practice.

When developing a knowledge rich unit, the act of talking about what it is that this unit is going to contain necessitates that you have to talk about teaching, and the language that is used and the discussions that use are rooted in what you are actually doing inside the classroom. The idea of making transparent your practice, sharing the things that you are actually doing is a really important part of being a team of teachers. Sometimes we’ll even get together as a group and say the kids in your class seem to have developed this skill much better than the kids have developed in my class. Can you show us what you actually did, the teacher will go to the board and they will teach and we will be actually watching them, and say oh gee that is different to what I do?  I am going to adjust my practice because I know that their practice results in stronger outcomes for the kids.

  • To increase the quality of instruction over time.

That collegially shared information goes into program units and it also increases the quality of instruction over time. As we go about the low variance approach what we are trying to do is identify the best practices, the best bets. So, out of all the things we could do when we are teaching a particular idea what are our best bets. And that comes through from expert teachers and from assessment information. And what we are really trying to do is find the best bets. It’s a way for us as teachers to learn from other practices from other people, the benefit of that is that the average quality of our instruction across classes is increasing, we are learning. We are getting better every year.

  • To provide students with a consistent experience between classes.

This is particularly important for younger years as they move from class to class and a year. What we are really trying to do is have a consistent experience. That consistent experience is particularly important in two ways. Firstly, it is important within a particular year. Consistent cues, consistent routines that reduce transition times between learning activities, consistent ways to set up classrooms to ease the transition between classes, so that when kids move they are familiar with these routines. And, secondly, probably the greater effect is over time when kids move through school from prep through to year one through to year two, it produces a consistent common experience for them which means that they build up a common schema of knowledge. At Clarendon teachers can be sure that students have learnt a common grounding of knowledge from year to year which assists in their teaching at the beginning of each year.

  • To reduce the planning and preparation loads on teachers.

For the teachers it helps to reduce the planning and preparation loads, when we are planning collaboratively, when we’re planning year on year so when we’re using materials and ideas from year to year for the next year, it actually reduces the preparation load. And it enables the teachers to do some really effective things with the time that has been freed up. The other thing it does is build up a strong instructional culture, when you are constantly sharing practices, when you’re agreeing to subjugate practices that you’ve used in the past, for the good of the group, you are building up common pedagogy across the group.

  • To build a strong instructional culture.

This idea of instructional culture, it imagines schools as organisations rather than collections of private practices. In a school with a strong instructional culture, there are common expectations around what is taught and how. These decisions are made by groups of teachers working on their practice, moving instructional decisions from the idiosyncratic to the collective.

So, in high variance schools you don’t have this organisation called school, that exist relatively independently, that run like private practices that kids move in an out of classes located in a series of buildings located within the school. In terms of organisation they don’t really function that way because there’s so much variation between classes, that it is not actually an organisation. And instructional culture imagines these schools as organisations. So, what you’re trying to do is leverage from the knowledge and expertise of teachers currently in the school, and that have been at the school in the past. This instructional culture also applies to teachers that will teach at the school in the future too. What you have with a strong instructional culture is a transparent culture, and a series of classrooms that share their organisational practices and share their instruction, and we own it together. Therefore it is not something held by me, it is something that we do as a school. In a school with a strong instructional culture, there is a common expectation of what is taught and how. That is what makes a strong instructional culture. There is a common pedagogy, there is a language of learning, an underlying theory that underpins everything else. And these decisions are made by groups of teachers working on their practice. What we really are trying to do is move instructional decisions from the idiosyncratic to the collective. So that decisions are made collectively, instead of these instructional decisions being made by individuals that may have more or less knowledge, more or less experience, more or less cohesion than the rest of their peers. Instead at Clarendon we are trying to harness the best collective wisdom of our teachers in order to make the best decisions we can in the service of the learning for our kids. So, a low variance curriculum enables a consistent and known knowledge base to be built over time. It is consistent because we know that this knowledge construction for instance is happening in each of the classrooms in say Year 4. It means year on year we are constructing a knowledge base that is known. So we know what the kids have learnt about and been exposed to in Year 7, so that means that we can build on that when we move into Year 8, Year 9 and Year 10.

Another consequence of a strong instructional culture, a culture that has a strong underlying pedagogy, is that it enables the organisations to “learn” over time and supports improvement efforts. The reason that a school learns over time is that if you have a curriculum that is written down and is present in some place where people can access it and it is used for more than one year then that means that you can make improvements to it. So that the things that are working from one year can be kept in the curriculum and tweaked, things that aren’t effecting the learning of your kids, things that you’ve missed or split up or need to work on, or someone in the team that’s going to work on and make it more efficient can be built into the curriculum that you have so that when you’re in 2022 you’ll have a curriculum that’s better than before so that every time it’s iterated through, you’ve got the input of these expert teachers so that it’s improving. So the school is an organisation that is actually learning, improving as you go, so that even when your new teachers come into the school they are sharing their knowledge and their wisdom with their colleagues, and when they leave the school, they are leaving their knowledge behind. At Clarendon we have some units that were written in their very initial basic form seven or eight years ago, and the echoes of the teachers’ work is coming through even now and there could be thousands of students whose learning is affected by teachers who have left the school six or seven years ago. So the strong instructional culture, the low variance approach, the documenting of curriculum allows us to capture the best teaching that has ever occurred inside our schools. It’s supporting improvement efforts because it means we are speaking the same language; we are working on the same things. So when we harness the collective we actually have an opportunity to work together to improve curriculum.

But it takes time. Change to instructional culture is incremental in time and radical over time. What that means is that you have to be patient, you need to be taking small steps and it means for some of us who want to get there now and reduce variation, the pace will seem so slow it might feel like you’re not getting anywhere. But in some point in time maybe in 12 months or so you’ll look back in time to compare to what was being done before and you’ll see a huge shift that resembles really accretional change rather than a sudden change in a team’s practice.

So how does a low variance curriculum effect Clarendon’s approach to differentiation. Clarendon believes in the following mantra that underpins their approach, they believe in ‘differentiation by support, not differentiation by curriculum.’ This goes back to Michael Young’s idea that all students deserve access to a quality curriculum, to powerful knowledge. If it is good enough for some of our students it is good enough for all of our kids. There should never be a subset of students that don’t have access to a quality curriculum, a C or D grade curriculum, just because they are less advanced on the developmental pathway at any point in time. So the starting point whenever we are working with kids in our class, is what can I provide as a teacher to enable them to access the curriculum. What is the minimum level of support that is required to access the curriculum? And the reason why the low variance approach and a documented curriculum is so important is that it frees up the teacher’s time and attention to be able to focus on these things. So, instead of teachers trying to find some worksheet online, and having to format it and it might be 50% of what you need, and it needs some adjusting and it is from some mediocre website. Instead of having that, you are starting with something that is quality. You are starting with real purpose to your lessons and you know that my class, or particular students might have difficulty with this particular idea, or that a student is going to have to need some support in this. So I will need to think carefully about what it is that I need to do and prepare for bridging the gap from where they are at and what we are asking the students to think about and do.

Now that is not always possible, there are going to be situations where the curriculum that you have in place is not going to be entirely suitable for the kids in your care and you are going to have to make some judicious decisions about that and whether that shouldn’t be your starting point.

Constructing a knowledge rich unit.

Here in the slide below are Clarendon’s general guidelines for a knowledge-rich unit

The first step is to decide on what is to be the topic of the unit?,  and Clarendon stresses starting with the attitude of being ambitious!

Reid then shared some examples in this slide below that were illustrative of the second step above, purpose. By having a common purpose such as in the example of Romeo and Juliet below, the play is taught through the lens of it being a product of the Renaissance period. These purposes detailed in the slide below take these enormous domains and help define what it is that we are going to teach. Agreed purpose leads to lower variability between classes. The shared purpose is a key feature of the low variation approach to curriculum.

The third step is to detail what this knowledge already builds on, what do students already know at the beginning of the unit, what have they learnt before, and what are the things they are likely to know, what are they bringing to the table.

The fourth step is to detail the knowledge that students need to know, that is to be learned. There is a “sweet spot” – for instance in between “doing the Romans” which is a bit too broad and then listing every single series of facts that a student is going to encounter as part of the unit. You are really trying to decide on what it is that the students will need to know and be able to do to achieve the unit’s goal?

The final step is some agreements. If you had a pyramid of variability, this is right at the top. So, then there needs to be discussion as a team (if applicable) of what will be common between the classes. What do we feel will be an acceptable level of variation between us? Are we going to share explanations? Is there going to be a way that we as teachers explain particular concepts to kids? What explanations will we use? What learning activities and practice work will we share and make common?

In terms of the knowledge of course, you don’t write it all yourself from scratch, instead use textbooks, use websites such as the Core Knowledge Foundation, Oak National Academy (has a whole curriculum online), because it is too big to do yourself, instead leverage off existing resources.

Lastly, in the webinar Reid referenced to building a curriculum map, and referred took Neil Almond’s analogy in researchEd’s book on Curriculum, where Neil talks about curriculum as a boxset analogy. The box set analogy works for a particular subject area. If you think about a series like The Simpsons you can watch it in any order, as you do not rely on one episode to key you into the next episode. A high variance curriculum is a little like the Simpsons series, a boxset, because you don’t need one part to link to another episode. However, if we think of series such as Game of Thrones or Line of Duty, these series have particular episodes that have their own sub plots that build through the course of a season, and then when you put all of the episodes together there is an overarching plot for the series. So these seasons depicted in the slide below are essentially like the different year groups. So therefore the question becomes how are we going to build our students’ knowledge over time. So when we are introducing knowledge in season 1, in Prep/Kinder the knowledge is a little shallow, so what Clarendon is trying to do is to encounter that knowledge again and again, so that gradually the students are building this knowledge. The low variation approach is important here as Clarendon knows that the kids have been exposed to common knowledge. The curriculum can be built like a box set where the knowledge can be built over time just as it is in a TV series. So at every year group the knowledge is revisited and built upon, we are building a schema (this knowledge experience) of deeper knowledge.

Another model that is useful is the 3 dimensional curriculum model developed by Claire Sealy. It involves 3 dimensions. the first of which is the vertical links, they are the links that occur between year levels in the same subject. So how does what kids are learning about in Year 7, relate to what they are learning in Year 8 and how does that then relate to what they are learning in Year 9. Then you have horizontal links, so how are things they are learning in English related to History, or in Art, Dance and Drama in the same year level. The horizontal curriculum is not dealing in themes, so it doesn’t mean that an ideal curriculum has a theme. For example, we don’t want apple month where in Maths we are counting apples, in Art we are drawing apples and in English we are writing a persuasive essay on apple eating: a kind of forced thematic ideas. What we are trying to do with the horizontal links is leverage the vertical links to teach the developed sequencing of individual subject areas. So what we are trying to do is look for supporting links between subjects areas rather than trying to shoehorn them in. The third dimension is the diagonal link between those different subjects and in different year levels. It might be something that is built in Year 7 and then is built on again in Year 9 in a particular subject.

Within the constraints of time we have to make judicious decisions about what it is that goes into our curriculum. Because our most precious and finite resource is instructional time. Thirteen years with our students sounds like a lot, but it is not, so every minute of instructional time counts. So, we have to make some really strong and considered decisions on what it is that we are going to teach and what we are going to use our instructional time for. And, at the heart of that, all of our curriculum decisions are political decisions, as these decisions need to determine what to leave in and leave out.

A curriculum map

A curriculum map shows the sequence of learning in one or more learning areas. Of most value is the process of its construction. A curriculum map is intended to be a high-level planning document; therefore, it usually contains just:

  • Unit name
  • Unit purpose (Big Idea)
  • Schedule in the year and Year Level (where it is taught and for how long and in what subject)

Can be electronic, paper or a series of post-its (to start with!)

So the following Year 7 curriculum map is run in excel, and the different subjects taught are horizontally represented. Along the top we have delineated where the terms are, so term 1 units sit underneath term 1, term 2 units, sit under term 2, and we have the name of the units, so the first unit that we run in term 1 for Year 7 it is GM Crops. Below it we then have the big idea that the unit is exploring. So essentially we indicate on the map what it is that we want kids to know as a result of this unit. Clarendon does this for the entire school from their 3 year old’s through to their senior classes in Year 10.

So, how can you build a coherent curriculum? Some final advice from Clarendon’s experience:

  • Recommend starting with one subject or year level
  • Audit your current curriculum, what do you currently actually teach, do you have a shared curriculum, include the “state” of the curriculum, so what state is the curriculum in, do you have shared curriculum materials? What exists for that curriculum? e.g. there might be a scope and sequence and that’s it, or there might be a textbook and that’s basically the curriculum for the year. The reason that’s important is it might give you an idea for how much work needs to be done with particular units for this to become a low variance curriculum. You might use a traffic light system and use post it notes to help with this, where a red post it note might mean that you have not got enough curriculum resources, an amber post it might mean it’s ok but you could use some more resourcing and green post it represents a strong currently resourced curriculum
  • Agree on the criteria for inclusion/exclusion before you start. You need to have some sort of underpinning philosophy about what goes in and what doesn’t go in, so what are you going to cut out of the curriculum. It is really important to this before you start, and the reason you are going to do it before you start is you won’t need that criteria until you really need it. As there will come a point when your team are arguing what should be kept or not in the curriculum and then at that moment you need that criteria that says what are the bases for our decision making here, i.e. what criteria are we using as this will help on what to eliminate or include in the curriculum. So agree on the criteria for inclusion/exclusion before you start.
  • But, the buck has to stop somewhere? So, when it comes to a time for a group to make a decision, and there is a stalemate, who is it exactly that has the mandate to do so, and therefore has the authority from the group to consider the group’s arguments and decide to go a particular way.
  • Decide on what is definitely out (based on your criteria), and delete them from the unit because they are not fit for purpose and don’t meet the criteria.
  • Determine any links between subject areas and change timings
  • Determine what needs to be added (confer to the Australian/state curriculum)
  • Once you have determined what needs to be added, reorder your units, move them from one year level to another, and this is where post it notes can be used to achieve this
  • Be pragmatic: So, when you are putting the curriculum map together
    • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There will be a temptation sometimes with units that you don’t like to take everything off, and then all of a sudden you are looking down the barrel of having to re write a whole heap of different units. It might be wiser to take a longer term view and gradually phase units out, and this links to the last point, it has to be manageable
    • You can’t do everything at once, it’s too burdensome

It’s actually ok to use a unit twice as your curriculum map is coming together. Which means the planning has already been done for another year group and potentially another group of teachers.

The building of this curriculum map is a big job, but a worthwhile one. If you are a school leader, nothing will help you gain a better understanding of what is happening in classrooms as much as being able to put your finger in the curriculum pie, to be able to see what it is that we intend to teach, even if that is not what’s enacted, what is it that we intend to teach.

So, if you have not already become a member of ThinkForwardEducators https://thinkforwardeducators.org/ (it’s free to join),  then I encourage you to, not the least to be able to watch Reid Smith’s webinar recording, but to access the other webinar recordings and network with other educators who are interested in the hope of achieving growth in students’ social opportunities! A deeply human desire to improve students’ social opportunities by focussing on what the evidence and research says works, and therefore, is in the best interests of the students under our care.

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Creating a school culture where teaching and learning thrive!

– Here is a list of resources grounded in research informed effective practices that will help create school cultures where classrooms thrive.

  • This short blog on 10 tips for new teachers from the Deputy Head Jonathan Porter at Michaela Community School in Wembley, London is GOLD –

https://tolearnistofollow.wordpress.com/2020/08/31/10-tips-for-new-teachers/

The Power of Culture with Pritesh Raichura is a podcast from Naylor’s Natter – from 1 hour 27 mins in hear Pritesh Raichura from Michaela talk in depth about the underlying values cultivated at the school

https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/naylors-natter-podcast-just-talking-to-teachers/id1448601060?i=1000476129897

  • This 10 post blog round up on Behaviour from Tom Sherrington contains so much wisdom

https://teacherhead.com/2021/04/11/safety-net/

  • This is a podcast where Darren Leslie interviews Barry Smith a founding leader at Michaela School, about Transforming School Culture

https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/transforming-school-culture-with-barry-smith/id1493757771?i=1000515777512

And this from a Charter Teacher on How Teaching Manners Transformed The School

https://passingthebaton682909401.wordpress.com/2019/12/12/how-teaching-manners-transformed-our-school/

  • Adam Boxer’s blog on the negative participatory effect of calling out answers in a class “A student who puts their hand up and calls out the answer – on the face of it this isn’t really that bad, it’s not like they are deliberately trying to disturb your lesson. But disturbing it is, and it kills your class (participation) Ratio.” https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2020/12/03/sir-i-know-this-sir-sir/
  • Watch Adam Boxer deliver this wonderfully helpful video titled Setting Students up to Succeed https://vimeo.com/435037942 that utilises techniques from the books Teach Like a Champion and Get Better Faster
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My researchED Curriculum Forum Sydney March 27 2021 recount.

Yesterday I attended the first face to face researchED event for the year in Australia. researchED is a global and national community for new and experienced teachers, started by the visionary Tom Bennett @tombennett71. This forum was expertly organised by Jennifer Buckingham @buckingham_j, who did a great job of assembling an international group of educators who weighed in on their take on what effective curriculum constitutes. researchED is a grass roots teacher led community that offers professional learning opportunities. The desired outcome of researchED, as attendee Chris Yates said to me last night, is the hope to achieve growth in students’ social opportunities! A deeply human desire to improve students’ social opportunities by focussing on what the evidence and research says works, and therefore, is in the best interests of the students under our care. researchED also takes seriously teacher voice, and as such the final and important section of this forum included a teacher heavy panel that allowed them to share their views with the heads of ACARA and NESA respectively. However, this blog will intentionally only deal with 2 of the speakers and their presentations.

First up was Nuno Crato @CratoNuno, current Professor of Maths and Stats at the University of Lisbon. Researcher on probability models and statistics. Former Minister of Education and Science 2011-2015. Nuno’s presentation was titled “Everything starts with the curriculum: Evidence from ILSA Studies from the book Improving a Country’s Education. PISA 2018 Results in 10 countries.

Why did Jennifer Buckingham invite Nuno Crato to speak?  Because Portugal is the only country that has shown improvement in reading, maths and science in PISA over the time it has been running. So Nuno took us through the evolution of education policy and results in Portugal. A key moment for change in Portugal was when school results were released in 2001 and people realised that school mattered – schools with similar SES students had very different outcomes. Between 2006 & 2015 Portugal improved- and the catalyst for this improvement was the implementation of a knowledge rich curriculum that was more rigorous focused on knowledge based content standards than its curriculum predecessor. As demonstrated in his slide here:

However, between 2015 & 2018 Portugal went from a knowledge-rich curriculum to a vague, multifaceted competencies-based curriculum. Then a return to a more vague curriculum based on competencies rather than one based on knowledge of content, and as a consequence the % of students who performed poorly between these tests went up in Science,  Maths & Reading.

Importantly Nuno Crato suggested that there are lessons to be learnt in his asynchronous presentation “Everything starts with curriculum” and this means:

  1. Curriculum should be demanding
  2. Centred on essential subjects (reading and maths in early years)
  3. Structured, progressive and have detailed standards (logical curriculum)
  4. Include knowledge at the base as without knowledge students cannot develop skills
  5. Retrieval practice is a very important function of assessing the curriculum “If we RETRIEVE constantly then we KNOW better.

Nuno also emphasised ‘there is no dichotomy, to be rigorous is to be fair.” So, curriculum should emphasise trying to bring everyone to a similarly high level. All students can improve when a country has an ambitious curricula, aligned assessment, and a focus on all students.

Finally, Nuno left us with what looks to be a great website to explore, that deals with much of the forum’s content https://www.iniciativaeducacao.org/en

Thank you Nuno for your presentation and sharing your journey, it was timely given the somewhat unique contextual situation of having changing Australian and NESA curriculums.

Next up was the always fascinating Natalie Wexler @natwexler, co-author of The Writing Revolution and author of The Knowledge Gap, both superbly written books. Natalie presented the knowledge gap, what it is and how to narrow it?

Problems become apparent in high school that have their origin in primary school. Natalie contends that comprehension is the most problematic of all. As comprehension is based on knowledge. Even more important than the skill of reading is the knowledge of the topic a student attempts to comprehend. As illustrated in her slide here:

Natalie posed a succession of questions,  Why does knowledge help with comprehension? Because prior knowledge lessens the load on working memory. But, what does this have to do with standardised testing? Tests essentially reveal what background knowledge and vocabulary students know. Students who do not have enough knowledge of what is being asked to be comprehended then do not get a chance to demonstrate their knowledge of what they know. So, knowledge allows students to access reading comprehension and demonstrate what they know, thereby increasing their likelihood of feeling like they are making progress and experiencing success. What does this have to do with High School? Comprehension skills don’t get better with practice like riding a bike does. Instead teaching a knowledge rich curriculum in primary school prepares students for secondary success and motivation. As knowledge is like Velcro, it sticks to other knowledge and this allows students to absorb more complex text, creating a virtuous cycle. This is also known as the Matthew Effect, where students with rich knowledge absorb more knowledge, than their counterparts with poorer knowledge. The difficulty with high school is that background knowledge is assumed. Then there is the difficulty between what we as teachers assume high school students know and what students actually do know.

So, Natalie posed where can we go from here?

  1. Organise read alouds by topic, not by skill. Have teachers read aloud to expose all children to the same knowledge. As listening is crucial in building knowledge and familiarity with written language. Class discussion is important for exposing students to knowledge too.
  2. Ask questions that put the content in the foreground rather than the skill
  3. Have primary classroom libraries organised by content rather than by reading level
  4. Be sceptical about reading levels, and, instead let students attack higher levels of content knowledge they have already acquired on that topic
  5. Writing is also crucial for developing literacy especially when it focuses on the content of the curriculum. How can we make writing easier and use it to build knowledge? Natalie’s advice for making writing easier: begin at the sentence level and embed writing activities in the content of the core curriculum. You have to have a content revolution to exploit a writing revolution
  • To be effective professional learning should be rooted in the content of the curriculum. And the professional learning should be rooted in content, cyclical and collaborative.

So, what can administrators and policymakers do? – Adopt a content focused literacy curriculum that goes deeply into topics in the social sciences, sciences and the arts.

On reflection, Natalie’s presentation reminded me of Dylan Wiliam’s quote ‘the big mistake we have made is to assume that if we want students to be able to think, then our curriculum should give our students lots of practice in thinking. This is a mistake because what our students need is more to think with.’

Natalie ended a wonderful presentation urging us to spread the word about the power of knowledge necessary to create social opportunity, something all societies around the world so badly need.

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Don’t Forget To Write

Book notes from the chapter Don’t Forget to Write, The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler

The Knowledge Gap | Natalie Wexler

Summary:

This important book builds a case for a rigorous, knowledge building curriculum and teaching methods that align with cognitive science. A potent combination.

Key ideas:

From the chapter Don’t Forget to Write

Knowledge building curriculum

  • As important as background knowledge is to reading it’s far more critical to writing. It may be tough to read about a topic you don’t know well but it can be done.
  • If you’re asked to write about it, you’ll struggle to produce anything coherent. Whether you can write a meaningful sentence depends on your knowledge of the particular topic.
  • If students are asked to write about a text’s main idea, they won’t be able to produce anything that makes sense unless they have acquired a fair amount of related factual information.
  • Asking students to write can reveal the shallowness and inadequacy of the teaching materials themselves.

Cognitive Science supports the use of writing

  • If students have absorbed the right information, writing about it forces them to retrieve it in a way that lodges it in their long-term memories, where it can be drawn on in the future. Cognitive scientists call this retrieval practice.
  • Writing also provides the kinds of benefits referred to as the protege effect when people try to teach materials to others, or simply plan to, their own understanding gets a powerful boost.

Content driven writing promotes deep learning and facilitates critical thinking

  • Writing may also be the best way to develop old fashion skills like finding the main idea, metacognitive skills like asking questions about one’s own understanding and the highly prized “21st-century skills” of analytical or critical thinking.
  • Skills focused teachers haven’t been wrong to want students to acquire those abilities. They’ve just been mistaken in their assumption that they can be taught directly, isolated from content.
  • Writing may also be the best way to guard against what progressive educators have feared will result from a focus on content: rote memorisation and the regurgitation of disconnected facts. While educators fears have been overblown, it can happen.
  • But when students write in response to a well-crafted prompt, they have no choice but to analyse how facts are related, which ones are truly important, and how best to communicate them to an unknown reader.
  • In short teaching writing is not only inseparable from teaching content, it can also be tantamount to teaching students how to think critically.
  • Having students write about what they’re learning can yield greater benefits than the techniques currently favoured by teachers discussion, projects, and group work. While there is a role for each in the classroom, they also have disadvantages. Class discussion is not only less rigourous than writing, it’s often dominated by the same few kids. Similarly, the details and fun of creating a project can easily obscure the learning objectives.

Writing needs to be explicitly taught

  • It is important to bear in mind that the benefits of writing will accrue only if the mechanics aren’t overwhelming. Just as with reading, the best way to prevent working memory from being overwhelmed is to ensure that some parts of the process are stored in long-term memory.
  • In writing, what needs to be stored are not only spelling and background knowledge but also things like the ways to vary sentence structure or begin a paragraph. When inexperienced writers try to compose longer pieces of writing, they need a written plan to follow so their working memory isn’t constantly trying to figure out what to do next, interrupting their train of thought. All of this means that simply writing, and possibly making the same mistakes over and over, isn’t likely to help struggling students.
  • Teachers need to breakdown the components of the process into manageable chunks and guide students through practising those charts in a logical sequence while providing prompt feedback.
  • Schools have paid too little attention to writing, treating it as a product when it’s really a process. In traditional classrooms, students get assignments back with their mistakes circled in red ink, possibly without further explanation, and then move onto the next assignment.

Judith Hochman’s methods contained in her co-authored book The Writing Revolution offers an explicit approach to teaching writing

  • Students can only write about subjects that they know well. For Hochman, the place to start is the sentence. If students don’t yet know how to write a good sentence, will never write good paragraphs, let alone good essays.
  • In most elementary classrooms, the obstacle to writing instruction is a lack of content. But in the few that use content rich curriculum, there is often a different problem students whose writing skills are still developing can easily become overwhelmed, both by the abundance of information and the open-ended nature of the assignments.
  • But many assignments ask students to write at length without regard to whether they have mastered sentence level skills, even in the early grades.
  • Individual teachers can use sentence level strategies to boost students comprehension and enable them to retain and critique material their learning. They can show students how to create linear outlines before they write to help them organise their thoughts and lighten their cognitive load.

If you found this interesting then you might like to read about Writing Improvement

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Writing Improvement.

There is a distinct need to address students’ ability to write in Australian education. Educator Emina McLean notes if we fail in this, we are passively accepting a continuation of the reality that approximately 40% of Year 9 students in Australia remain at or below the minimum benchmark for Writing, and that far too many young people graduate high school with inadequate writing skills for higher education and work. This is evidenced by the screenshot of Year 9 NAPLAN results by band, 2019.

Naturally, the question to begin with is what causes have contributed to this situation where many students are not proficient in writing?

There are a multitude of possible or indeed probable reasons for this current situation. Not the least the reason Jordan Baker from the Sydney Morning Herald highlighted in her article last year.

Within her article Jordan reported that “Almost half of NSW teachers – including two in five high school English teachers – say they were poorly trained to teach writing, and a quarter devote less than an hour a fortnight of class time to it. Two-thirds said they were either minimally or not prepared at all to teach grammar, punctuation, spelling, paragraphing and sentence structure, or for marking and giving students feedback on writing.” Baker went on to say “The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) commissioned the Australian Catholic University to survey more than 4000 primary and secondary teachers from all sectors as part of a review of how writing is taught in NSW schools. Almost 10 years of NAPLAN data has found NSW students are either stagnating or going backwards.”

Furthermore, the NESA Teaching Writing: Report of the Thematic Review of Writing 2018, found a student’s HSC performance is determined in large part through school-based assessment of written work and, with few exceptions, HSC candidates will produce several or more sustained pieces of writing for their final exams. So, achieving the highest performance bands requires a mastery of writing and ability to hierarchically process concepts and knowledge that are expressed in essays, extended responses and imaginative writing tasks.

Moreover, writing may be the hardest thing we ask students to do in school. Studies have shown that writing places a huge burden on “working memory,” a term used to describe what happens in the mind when it processes information. Writing at length increases that burden.

How do we overcome the limitations of our working memory?

By having more information stored in long-term memory, whose capacity is effectively limitless. Once you have automatized the mechanics of writing—and you’re familiar with the content you’re writing about—the task becomes easier.

So, to help students become great writers takes more than just assigning writing, teachers need to teach writing. Moreover, for many students, seeing worked examples, or the ‘must haves’ of a good writing piece is not enough to teach them how to create great pieces of writing.

Thankfully the excellent book The Writing Revolution: a guide to advancing thinking through writing in all subjects and grades, by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler offers a chance for every teacher from every grade and in any discipline a road map to teach writing.

In the book, the authors state that sentence-level work is the engine that will propel your students from writing the way they speak to using the strategies of written language. They identify a variety of common sentence problems, such as:

  • Fragments (a group of words that is not a grammatically complete sentence)
  • Run on sentences (occur when two complete sentences are squashed together without using a conjunction or proper punctuation)
  • Repetition of ideas
  • Sentence structure is dull and repetitive

Let’s start with distinguishing between a fragment and a sentence. A fragment is a group of words that does not form a complete thought, whereas a sentence is a group of words that forms a complete thought. “Much of what students hear, read and write in their everyday lives is couched in simple language and structures. But much of what they’re expected to read in schools is linguistically complex.” (Judith Hochman) Thus it is not surprising really to see fragments instead of sentences in student writing composition.

A popular and powerful TWR sentence activity is what has become known as BECAUSE BUT SO. It’s a great illustration of how an exercise that seems simple can actually require students to think analytically. It’s also the first conjunction activity you should give to your students. Here’s how it works: you’ll give students a sentence stem – the beginning of a sentence and ask them to turn it into three separate complex sentences, using each conjunction in turn. This approach requires students to engage in far more specific and focused thinking than just asking students to respond to an open ended question. Importantly, as the authors stress this activity encourages students to think in different ways, forcing them to engage with the content, and think within disciplines. Indeed, the task itself also escalates in difficulty as you complete it.

It is therefore very important to understand what each conjunction means:

  • Because explains why something is true, reasons
  • But indicates a change of direction (a U-turn)
  • So, tells us what happens as a result of something else (cause and effect), consequence.

Teachers give the students a sentence stem (the beginning of a sentence) and ask them to turn it into three complex sentences, using each conjunction in turn.

So how does this look then in written compositions?

Because is used to give reasons.

  • She doesn’t go to school because she’s sick.
  • Because it was raining, I wore a raincoat.
  • Kate was happy because she won the running race.

But is used to connect two opposite ideas.

  • I love ice cream, but he loves apples.
  • It’s sunny and hot, but I like it.
  • She’s 80 years old, but she looks much younger than her real age.

And,

So is used to link between the cause or reason and the results

  • He’s hungry so he ate some food.
  • The weather isn’t very good so we didn’t go camping.
  • He lost the key so he couldn’t get into his house.  

I am going to now try to summarise the power of using basic conjunctions: because, but so to form sentences.

  • The content drives the rigour
  • This activity will prod students to think critically and deeply about the content they are learning. More than asking them to write an answer to an open-ended question. 
  • Because but so activities will provide the teacher with a more precise check of their students’ comprehension.
  • This activity is powerful because it forces students to expand their thinking with precision and detail.

Hence let’s apply it to how it might look in reality. In the first instance give students a sentence stem such as these –

Careful revising of compositions is critical because (Because explains WHY something is true.)

Careful revising of compositions is critical, but (But indicates a change in direction.) 

Careful revising of compositions is critical, so (So tells us what happens as a result of something else.)

Careful revising of compositions is critical because (Because explains WHY something is true.) it involves improving the composition by clarifying or altering the content or structure of the draft

Careful revising of compositions is critical, but (But indicates a change in direction.) 

students often are unskilled in revising and resistant to taking the time and effort needed for effective revision

Careful revising of compositions is critical, so (So tells us what happens as a result of something else.) systematic instruction, including demonstration and guided practice, on revision should be provided using “unelaborated paragraphs.” 

It can applied to all subjects. For example here is one for Mathematics, to reveal Mathematics reasoning skills:

  • 3x and 4x are like terms, because

(they contain the same pro numerals)

  • 3x and 4x are like terms, but

(3y is not a like term)

  • 3x and 4x are like terms, so

(so, they add together)

There are numerous benefits to creating complex sentences. This type of task encourages critical thinking about the content and deeper level engagement than an open-ended question e.g. Why do seeds need light to grow? Students and their teachers figure out what they don’t understand and what is the further information they need. The writing can be used to check understanding of new vocabulary/spelling words. Researchers have found that giving students frequent quizzes strengthens their memories of content & asking students to write frequently about what they have learnt has the same effect. When students write about the content they’re studying they learn to synthesize information and produce their own interpretations. That process helps them absorb and retain the substance of what they’re writing about and the vocabulary that goes with it.

I want to turn now to some advice from writing Reid Smith of Ballarat Clarendon College, whose school has been successfully using techniques such as because, but so from The Writing Revolution for a period of over 2 years.  In my conversations with Reid and from close reading of his blogs comes much wisdom that is worth sharing.

Firstly, Reid says pick your reading materials carefully. When initially teaching TWR strategies, easier texts or familiar contexts are best. Then, as the strategy is embedded, use more complex texts where the TWR strategies will help students better understand and learn what they read. 

Secondly, the content of the tasks should draw out the core thinking you want your students to do. A key guiding question for his school was: Is the content we are using to complete the TWR strategy key knowledge or understanding we want our students to know?

If ‘memory is the residue of thought’, then activities such as this can surely only help our students, particularly those who really struggle with the subject, to remember more. With this, you’re not having to deal with those students who say, “I don’t know how to start”. Instead, you get them thinking about the content in a highly time-efficient way.

Thirdly, always write anticipated responses for every student task. You need to know the likely question/response or you’ll have your students wasting time getting caught up in misconceptions. We cannot emphasise this enough – this front-loaded work avoids situations where activities are not working or are more difficult than you had intended.

Fourthly, when students write or complete sentence stems orally they must write or say the WHOLE sentence – not just the finishing fragment. We needed to be really disciplined with this and come back to the purpose of the activity and the habits it was creating in our students.

And, finally, TWR deliberate practice requires teacher feedback too. Students also need clear, direct feedback that helps them identify their mistakes and monitor their progress.

So, in wrapping up, a focus on writing can lead to improved student comprehension of content learnt, reflection on learning, retrieval of knowledge and critical thinking.

Writing about content material facilitates learning by consolidating information in long-term memory,” describing a process known as the retrieval effect. Information is quickly forgotten if it’s not reinforced, and writing helps to strengthen a student’s memories of the material they’re learning.

Writing about a topic also encourages students to process information at a deeper level.

Writing is not caught; writing must be taught!

If you found this interesting then you might like to read about Don’t Forget To Write

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Sharing my school’s Teaching and Learning Framework

During the January 2021 Staff Professional Development Day, Calrossy’s Teaching and Learning Framework was launched. This framework’s audience is primarily aimed at the school’s teachers.

As such, the Calrossy Anglican School Teaching and Learning Framework provides a school-wide approach for teaching and learning. The framework is informed by research to improve teaching practice and optimise student learning across all years and content areas. It provides a common language and understanding of teaching and learning across the school P-12, so that teachers work toward and ultimately meet this understanding both within their individual classrooms and the school as a whole.

The framework’s rationale is:

  • Improving teaching practice
  • Optimising student learning outcomes and providing a common teaching and learning language across the school
  • Growing teachers, importantly through collaboration and sharing together, building relationships and community.
  • Better facilitation of connections/partnerships with teachers themselves, parents and carers and the wider community
  • Relevant to Calrossy’s context
  • Creating a culture of sharing and collegiality

The Teaching and Learning Framework’s purpose:

  • Will help with consistency and help with common language
  • Will operationalise as a planning document
  • Is part of our practice for all academic teaching staff and not optional
  • Middle Leaders will drive the process with staff
  • The framework will inform planning for professional development

The construction of the Framework was a 6 month long process, where a committee of 4 Junior and Secondary School staff met on a weekly basis. The staff on the committee were Ruth Allum, Leonie Collins, Penny Trevaskis and Rob Marchetto. The committee needed to decide on a rationale, suitable audience and then connect the framework to the school’s vision for students to learn, grow and serve. Next was the overlay of how it would be expressed. It was decided that teacher instructions cause a student effect and that this would inform how to communicate the principles within the framework. This simply translates as what teachers do have effects on student learning. Emphasizing the notion of causation. Notably, the committee felt it important to write a framework without pithy statements of aspirational fluffiness, that would not entertain fads and jargonistic trends. Significant questions considered at the outset for developing a framework included:

  • How well will it develop student learning?
  • How well does it fit across P-12?
  • How well does it fit across Key Learning Areas?

To inform the construction of the framework the committee initially looked at existing schools’ frameworks to gain insights and ideas for layout/style/format and to view what principles they had selected.  

We decided to house the framework in a diamond shaped design as reflected in the image below. This captures our unique diamond model school offering at Calrossy, where in the Junior School girls and boys are together in coeducational classes, separate as single sex classes in Year’s 7-9 and then together again in Year’s 10-12.

Next we decide on the four overarching guiding principles, namely:

  • Informed teaching
  • Active and engaged teaching
  • Respectful relationships and,
  • Positive Partnerships

Initially the framework was developed by the four members of the committee, it was then taken to our P-12 middle leaders who made many helpful suggestions for its improvement, and lastly it was presented to our executive in its final form. Importantly, the Teaching and Learning Framework has emerged out of collaboration and consultation with staff in all academic areas of the school, in all sorts of roles (from teaching to leadership), from multiple faculties and multiple year levels. Emerging as it did from people within the school, I am pleased that the resulting framework aligns with what research says is best and provides meaningful opportunities for professional learning. Notably for parents it was decided that Calrossy staff should seek to create positive partnerships through their commitment to:

  • the inclusion of parents and carers as an integral part of the learning journey through using effective communication and establishing a common language for learning that can be used in the home to support their child’s learning

Naturally the Calrossy Teaching and Learning Framework builds on what has existed previously. However, it should give greater clarity and purpose about what we are aiming to achieve as teachers at Calrossy. The Calrossy Teaching and Learning Framework appears in full in the link below.

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Offering online learning as an option for student schooling

The school where I work at has expanded its student learning options by offering something new. eCalrossy has begun in 2021.

This is a full time online distance education offering for Year 7. This will expand to Years 8 and 9 over two years. Calrossy IT staff and our Deputy Principal have worked tirelessly to bring this innovative offering to fruition, and we are closely monitoring the progress of both teachers and their students with this long term option of learning.

Leveraging from our lockdown learning in 2020, eCalrossy teaching staff were explicitly trained in best practice in January. Unsurprisingly, these teaching practices largely originate from UK and USA teacher experience.

So, included here is the eCalrossy for teachers presentation and the comprehensive eCalrossy teacher Guide to Online Learning.

More details on eCalrossy are contained in this link.

https://calrossy.nsw.edu.au/Enrolment/Calrossy-Experience-Tours/eCalrossy

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10 Australian evidence informed Bloggers I follow

I have enjoyed many Australian evidence informed bloggers that have emerged or blogged strongly through this COVID period that are worth following. Such as these 10:

Paul Mosshttps://paulgmoss.com/

Emina McLean’s https://www.eminamclean.com/blog

Reid Smith’s https://notquitetabularasa.wordpress.com/

Benjamin Evan’s https://thingsbehindsunblog.wordpress.com/

Tom Cain and Matthew McLaren’s https://thinkingaboutteaching.blog/

Greg Ashman’s https://gregashman.wordpress.com/

Rebecca Birch’s  https://showthread.wordpress.com/

Brad Nguyen’s https://teachthinkblog.wordpress.com/

Nathaniel Swain’s https://www.nathanielswain.com/blog

Michael Salter’s https://pocketquintilian.wordpress.com/

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