Monday, February 25, 2008

teaching to the test

Teach for Australia says this:
Teach for Australia would develop standardised literacy and numeracy tests for the Fellow to assess their students. These would be short, low-stakes tests conducted every month that track each student’s performance in the key skill areas

... we need a no-excuses, unrelenting focus on performance in Australia’s remote schools. Monthly tests in literacy and numeracy are a key mechanism to achieving this. Good teachers, of course, are likely to do daily or weekly mini-tests (in addition to the monthly tests) to gauge student progress and determine areas of weakness.

Will this mean that the Fellows will simply ‘teach to the test’? Quite possibly, but if the tests are well constructed and properly assess the knowledge that students are supposed to learn, then ‘teaching to the test’ presents no difficulties.
- Teach for Australia
I think this needs to be discussed and fleshed out a lot more. The main potential problem of teaching to the test is rote learning - knowing an answer is "correct" but not understanding why it is correct or how that knowledge might be applied in some sort of variation of the theme or "real life" situation.

Of course there is a huge literature on this and the curriculum wars rage on unabated. Here is one example, from many:
... many children who correctly answered pencil-and-paper fraction questions such as 5/11 x 792 = q could not pour out one-third of a glass of water, and of those who could, only a small proportion had any idea of what fraction of the original full glass of water remained.
- Fractions: A Weeping Sore in Mathematics Education
My view is that good teaching methodology is a continuum from constructionist to instructionist and teachers have to walk the walk along the whole of that continuum.

Related: Noel Pearson's "radical centre" concept applied to education

what is maths?

What is maths?

I've been thinking about this for a while as part of my decision to quit focusing exclusively on computing and go back to school and teach maths and science as well

It's also an issue to do with the curriculum wars (content versus process, or whatever), our social mathophobia (bad jokes at staff meetings about mathematicians by humanities teachers who have become adminstrators) and the whites falling behind the asians in international maths competitions (China and India will soon take over the world)

So, what is maths?

There doesn't seem to be a clear cut, definitive answer. I'm happy about that. At this stage I'm writing down some things I have discovered so far. Not definitive, rather preliminary, but a start.

Maths is NOT about formulas and cranking out computations - or rather that's a very small part of maths

Maths is about perceiving and acting in the world in an enhanced way, about perceiving the world in a different way and being able to act more powerfully within it

What is mathematics? Most people would say it has something to do with numbers, but numbers are just one type of mathematical structure. Saying "math is the study of numbers" (or something similar) is like saying that "zoology is the study of giraffes". Math may be better thought of as the study of patterns, but this too falls short...

The more I study math, the more I wonder about what exactly math is. Actually nobody knows. It seems to be a product or our minds, and yet reflects the external universe with uncanny accuracy. A mathematician develops a mathematical theory for its aesthetic unworldly beauty and it's compelling evolution, with no thought of how it might be applied to the world. A century later a physicist finds this theory to be perfect to use as a framework to express his physics (this sort of thing happens frequently). Pretty weird how intimately connected our innermost "mind" and the outermost "universe" really are. This is a profound mystery!

Bruce Bennett, my advisor in grad school, defines mathematics as "unified consciousness theory". As you come to master a branch of mathematics, it's as though you've grown a new abstract organ of perception through which you may then view the world. You've grown a new "mind's eye" that can perceive realities literally inconceivable without this new organ of perception.

Rafael Espericueta
Professor of Mathematics
Bakersfield College
- what is math?
I think that last sentence is the most interesting insight yet that I've read about what is maths:
"You've grown a new "mind's eye" that can perceive realities literally inconceivable without this new organ of perception."
This is very good but not sufficient. Because it applies equally to other subject domains. It is not mathematical enough.

The other good thing I discovered was what to say to someone at a party when they discover you are a maths teacher and come up to you and say, "they taught me boring quadratics at school and I am a successful businessman and have never used quadratics ... what a waste of time". Here is what you say:
When I was in first grade we read a series of books about Dick and Jane. There were a lot of sentences like "see Dick run" and so forth. Dick and Jane also had a dog called Spot.

What does that have to do with mathematics education? Well, when I occasionally meet people at parties who learn that I am a mathematician and professor, they sometimes show a bit of repressed hostility. One man once said something to me like, "You know, I had to memorize the quadratic formula in school and I've never once done anything with it. I've since forgotten it. What a waste. Have YOU ever had to use it aside from teaching it?"

I was tempted to say, "No, of course not. So what?" Actually though, as a mathematician and computer programmer I do use it, but rarely. Nonetheless the best answer is indeed, "No, of course not. So what?" and that is not a cynical answer.

After all, if I had been the man's first grade teacher, would he have said, "You know, I can't remember anymore what the name of Dick and Jane's dog was. I've never used the fact that their names were Dick and Jane. Therefore you wasted my time when I was six years old."

How absurd! Of course people would never say that. Why? Because they understand intuitively that the details of the story were not the point. The point was to learn to read! Learning to read opens vast new vistas of understanding and leads to all sorts of other competencies. The same thing is true of mathematics. Had the man's mathematics education been a good one he would have seen intuitively what the real point of it all was.
- the most misunderstood subject

Sunday, February 24, 2008

the importance of visual programming

the importance of visual programming by Detha Elza

Detha finds scratch the best place to start young kids, outlines some of its higher order limitations expertly, rejects game maker because its Windows only, finds eToys inpenetrable, mentions Bots and looks at how to make python programming more accessible. Also discusses Quartz Composer which I've never used. It's a great blog.

I like his succinct outline of scratch limitations:
It also has some pretty severe limitations: no user-defined blocks, no return values, no file interaction (so no high scores), no network interaction, no dynamic object creation, the program cannot draw on sprites (only on the background), no string variables or any real string handling. It is a great environment for learning to think creatively within its constraints, but my kids also bump up against its limits pretty quickly.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why We Banned Legos

Why we banned Legos
This is an incredibly interesting read about power, ownership etc. These issues arise when a resource is limited.
Children absorb political, social, and economic worldviews from an early age. Those worldviews show up in their play, which is the terrain that young children use to make meaning about their world and to test and solidify their understandings. We believe that educators have a responsibility to pay close attention to the themes, theories, and values that children use to anchor their play. Then we can interact with those worldviews, using play to instill the values of equality and democracy.

I stopped using legoTClogo at school partly because it was an expensive resource and the sharing arrangements became too problematic. eg. a student is half way through building a great structure and the next class walks in the door.

It doesn't work well in "normal" classrooms. It worked best for me with
(a) special kids - special is eduspeak for disadvantaged - with small class size and exclusive access
(b) after school club which attracted gifted and talented kids - and enabled those kids to team up with each other (hi jack, darryl - I know you're out there)

one problem with scratch

In scratch I can't see any way to name your scripts. Unless I am missing something it can't be done.

This makes the classic, beautiful and elegant Barry Newell's turtle confusion puzzle sheet - my favourite introduction to turtle graphics - far more difficult to implement

I love Barry's puzzles because they start simple and scale to complex in the most deliciously, elegant fashion. He does this by using the earlier shapes as building blocks for the later shapes

For instance once you can draw a square with the cat starting and finishing in the middle (a centre-gon) then variations are possible by drawing smaller squares or rotating the cat before drawing same size squares

The scratch code shows how to draw one centred square.

In other versions of logo (microworlds, mswlogo) once you have the code for the centred square as a named procedure which can accept variable inputs then you can re-use the code elegantly to draw more complex shapes.

to twosquare
csquare 100
csquare 60

to rotatesquare
csquare 100
right 45
csquare 100

This elegance is not possible in scratch.

However, I did manage to complete one of Barry's more advanced shapes in scratch (number 38) which is a centred square rotated 9 times

using this scratch code:

So, the epistemological issue here is using names to blackbox code in order to write more elegant (clean) solutions to more complex problems.

Also there's no turtle in the default animal shapes. Outrageous :-) I miss that turtle. Mitch, can't you put it back in.

reference: Turtle confusion: Logo Puzzle and Riddles (1988) by Barry Newell

Monday, February 18, 2008

projects or games?

I think it's better that we ask our students to create projects rather than games

This represents a trade off between motivation (games are more motivating for some) and a curriculum based more on educational principles

Motivation is very important. But if the teacher leans too far towards the motivation principle they may well lose their authority to introduce other important educational content into the mix. Teacher authority? Well, yes, teachers ought to use their authority to do what they think is best.

This also represents a change in my thought that computing as such and programming in particular ought to be some sort of "centre of gravity" to one where I see science and maths as a more important "centre of gravity"

Hence, this year I have gone back to teaching as a Middle School maths / science teacher as well as a senior school computing teacher

This is also represented in a shift in my current programming software of choice from Game Maker (focus on games) to Scratch (focus on projects)

So tonight, I've been reworking an old Game Maker worksheet into a Scratch Project worksheet.

As well as the global replace, "game" with "project", what has disappeared off the worksheet? Some questions about configuration (Can the player configure the game to suit themselves – such as alter the backgrounds, music, difficulty, character?), emotions invoked, the quality of the game play and some hints about good game design.

What has stayed on the worksheet and been transformed in this process? Some questions about the quality of help, educational goals, fun factor, interactivity, ideas and things like that.

These criteria are also influencing the projects that I pick and provide to the students for them to critique. I don't pick something because it has good game play but I look for some other broader educational objective. I searched the Scratch site for projects using the tags maths, science and simulations, not games or animations. And I will ask my students to produce an educational project to teach a real person something and not a game. This will lead to some interesting conversations when some students will ask, "Can I build a game?"

I think developing a scientific world view is a more important educational goal than computer programming as such.


in general programmers are not creatures of the enlightenment

the decline of IT in education

comparing game maker with etoys / squeak
Interesting to compare my current thinking with points 1,2 and 3 of this earlier post (April 2007)

Something is making me do it (September 2005)

Rudd's previous record in indigenous affairs

Rudd's previous record on indigenous affairs as related by Noel Pearson:
My first official job was on a task‐force appointed by Queensland Premier Wayne Goss in 1991 – led by his wunderkind head of the cabinet office, Kevin Rudd – to develop Aboriginal land rights legislation. In opposition since time immemorial, the fledgling Labor government dreaded its commitment to introduce land rights legislation in the most conservative of states. In dramatic circumstances, at a national conference hosted by Premier Goss as part of Justice Tony Fitzgerald’s Fraser Island Inquiry, the Premier announced the government’s intention to develop land rights legislation. I was there with a delegation of Cape York elders and colleagues; I had begun my own trajectory in pursuit of land rights for the people of Cape York Peninsula by forming the Cape York Land Council the year before.

Kevin Rudd and Wayne Goss eventually produced miserable legislation – an opinion that I have not changed sixteen years later. The new law provided for a slightly different form of title to replace that previously granted by the National Party government of Sir Joh Bjelke‐Petersen. The practical effect of the title transfer was negligible and did not grant any more land than that already under Aboriginal ownership. Most of these title transfers have still not taken place.

Provision was made for Aboriginal groups to claim lands on the basis of their traditional affiliation or historical association, or economic and social need. National parks and vacant Crown lands were the only land that could be claimed before a specially established Land Tribunal – but only those parcels of land that the executive government had decided were available. This provision, which Kevin Rudd designed, enabled the government to control what could be claimed, and when it could occur. There was no right to claim land other than what government determined. In the sixteen years of this legislation, very few parcels of vacant land were ever gazetted for claim: I know of only one claim that went through the process. Around a dozen national parks were made available – principally in Cape York but also the Great Sandy Desert National Park in the south‐western corner of Queensland – and they were all successfully proven before the Land Tribunal.

I represented the traditional owners in the first claim to the Flinders Islands and Cape Melville National Parks in 1993. The claim was successful. However, the Yiithuwarra traditional owners have still not received title to the park. They have no role in its management, and not one of them is employed by any of the plethora of government agencies responsible for the “natural resource management” of these lands and seas. The managers are all white. Half of the Yiithuwarra who gave evidence in the 1993 claim, including almost all the elders, are now dead. The implementation of the original commitment to hand over title and management of national parks to traditional owners has been in abeyance during the three terms of Premier Peter Beattie’s government. The government fears an electoral backlash if it proceeds with the Goss/Rudd scheme.

I recount this story first to make the point that if I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase “social justice” fall easily from the lips of a Labor politician in my home state, I would be an extremely wealthy man.

My first experience of the realpolitik of fighting for Aboriginal rights was bitterly hard. The most shameful thing occurred on the day Premier Goss tabled the Bill. It contained nothing to distress the miners or the farmers, whose interests were fully accounted for. Then Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane Peter Hollingworth duly came out and gave the government’s paltry legislation his extraordinary blessing. It was the Premier’s language that was shocking. He and his advisers had determined that the best way to sell the new law to an unsympathetic Queensland public was to make it clear he was not giving any free handouts to the blackfellas. The grab on the evening news was to the effect that the provision for the payment of royalties for mining would not allow any Aboriginal “sheiks” to drive around in Rolls Royce motorcars. It was appalling. True to his promise, the minor provision for the payment of royalties for mining applying to only one of Queensland’s numerous mines – the Cape Flattery Silica Mines owned by Mitsubishi on the land of the Hope Vale community – has not paid one cent of royalties to the community sixteen years later.

I learned a bitter truth through this experience: that Aboriginal people are lepers in the Australian democratic process. I have watched with awe how the progressive lobby turned al‐Qaeda recruit David Hicks into a relentless, irrecusable and finally triumphant national cause – from Taliban terrorist to latter‐day Nelson Mandela of Guantanamo Bay. It has (occasionally) been said that it is not the man, it is the principle. There is a much clearer principle involved in the breach of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by operation of the Australian Government’s Native Title Act, but this could not be made a cause célèbre. In terms of marketability, it is easier to sell a terrorist than an Australian Aborigine subjected to ongoing racial discrimination by the country’s laws relating to native land title. Australia’s democracy is telegenically allergic to blackfellas.

This got me thinking about pragmatism and realism in political leadership. The new breed of Labor apparatchiks running state governments after the disasters of the 1980s were more hard‐headed about the imperatives of holding on to power: no more Whitlam‐esque indulgences, no more socialism. Goss, Rudd and Swan were the new pineapple heads of the Sunshine State. I understood that Aboriginal causes were political hard‐sell. I felt at the time that Premier Goss could have produced more just legislation without cutting his government’s throat in the process. I thought about low‐level, poll‐driven pragmatism versus ideals. Wayne Goss had been part of the Labor lawyer brigade who had spent time working in Aboriginal Legal Aid, yet in two electorally handsome terms his government did nothing to improve the lot of Queensland’s most abject people.

Later the albatross of Australia’s lepers hung around the throat of Paul Keating’s prime ministership in 1996. Never before, and likely never again, would indigenes be invited in from the woodheap to sit at the main table as they did during those Keating years. This just confirmed the opinion that Aborigines are electoral poison. No more bleeding hearts. No more prime ministerial insistence that the blackfellas come in from the cold
- white guilt, victimhood and the quest for a radical centre

what happens after sorry?

I agree with David Burchell: Fuzzy feelings won't save anyone (read the whole thing)
As any student of the history of Christianity knows, conscience, guilt, atonement and forgiveness can be double-edged emotional swords. The person who gives also receives. Bestowing an apology on another can cause us a perverse kind of pleasure: the pleasure of feeling better about ourselves as apologisers.

Perhaps that's why so many of the people whose hearts were raised to the skies in sorrow managed at the same time to be so mean-spirited towards the hapless but basically well-intentioned Brendan Nelson. They were distancing themselves from the other Australians out there, those less virtuous than themselves.

So seductive was the call of the moment that otherwise hard-nosed journalists (such as The 7.30 Report's Kerry O'Brien) seemed determined to adopt an aura not unlike that of Mother Teresa.

Now it's true that many commentators, as well as the PM himself, have striven almost ostentatiously to avoid any impression of losing hold of their faculties.

So we've heard a great deal about the apology being the easy part, and how the hard part of the job is yet to begin. And Kevin Rudd has announced some decidedly bold benchmarks for attacking indigenous mortality rates, school attendance figures and housing availability.

And yet these gestures, I confess, serve only to stoke my anxiety. To be blunt, I worry whether a PM who seems increasingly to be cast as the deliverer of Aboriginal Australia will muster the strength of character to be hated (vociferously hated, perhaps) by many Australians - white and black alike - for making the kinds of unpopular decisions that are surely required.

Benchmarks are hardly a novelty in Aboriginal policy. Similarly stern aims to close the gap between the two nations have been invoked by every PM since Robert Menzies.

Yet too often they have become ritual words, uttered without any tangible effect. No bread has turned into flesh; no wine has become blood. Indeed, so far as can be told from the publicly available figures, on some key indicators the gap has probably widened.

To be frank, while I would dearly love to believe in them, I have no idea right now how the PM intends to turn his benchmarks into working reality.
Can Kevin Rudd make a tough decison, one that might make him unpopular? I doubt it. Can the problems of indigenous Australia be solved without tough decisions? Most definitely not.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

stealing children

Chief Protector of Aborigines Scene from Phillip Noyce's movie Rabbit Proof Fence (2002).

Forced Removal Scene from Phillip Noyce's Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)

via dreadnought australia
"... entrenched opposition to an apology has three (non exclusive) potential sources: racism, superior experience / expert opinion and / or pride"
Worthwhile reading his analysis in full

update (17th February):
With respect to the movie clip about stealing children. I think we need a dry eyed thoughtful and historically accurate apology rather than just a wet eyed, feel good cathartic apology. Pearson's words about the history are important here:
Then there is the historical angle on the apology. The 1997 report by Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson is not a rigorous history of the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of families. It is a report advocating justice. But it does not represent a defensible history. And, given its shortcomings as a work of history, the report was open to the conservative critique that followed. Indigenous activists' decision to adopt historian Peter Read's nomenclature, the Stolen Generations, inspired Quadrant magazine's riposte: the rescued generations.

The truth is the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of Aboriginal families is a history of complexity and great variety. People were stolen, people were rescued; people were brought in chains, people were brought by their parents; mixed-blood children were in danger from their tribal stepfathers, while others were loved and treated as their own; people were in danger from whites, and people were protected by whites. The motivations and actions of those whites involved in this history -- governments and missions -- ranged from cruel to caring, malign to loving, well-intentioned to evil.
- when words aren't enough
Kevin Rudd (part 1 and 2) and Brendan Nelson's (part 3) televised speeches to Parliament are here. Brendan Nelson has been criticised for his speech but I thought it provided a good complement to Rudd's. Nelson went to some places where Rudd feared to go but which were relevant (eg. Northern Territory intervention, which up until now has been supported by Labour).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

when words aren't enough

Noel Pearson's analysis of tomorrow's apology is a must read:

when words aren't enough

He looks at it from a number of angles:
  • the culture wars
  • philosophical
  • psychological
  • historical
  • political
  • strategic
  • emotional
  • spiritual
"My view is that Aboriginal people's lives were stolen by history.

It wasn't just that children were stolen in a literal sense, it was more the case that the prospects of Aboriginal people being able to pursue any form of sustainable and decent life were stolen.

Yes, there was grog, there was prostitution, there was untold misery in Aboriginal camps. And if an Aboriginal mother brought her child to the gates of the mission for their protection, were not these lives stolen from them?

Even where Aboriginal people carved out a life in an unforgiving and unrelenting white society, they were still vulnerable to the state's arbitrary removal powers.

This history cannot be understood simply through the specific policy intentions of the governments and the missions. It must be understood by reference to the severe life options available to Aboriginal people in the wake of European occupation and indigenous dispossession ..."

teacher training

Here are the sorts of things covered in teacher training courses. These courses typically run for one year:
  1. classroom management and behaviour management
  2. lesson and program preparation
  3. induction into a real school
  4. subject expertise
  5. learning theory
  6. history of education and pedagogy
  7. curriculum framework brainwashing (in South Australia it's called SACSA, a social constructivist framework which many experienced teacher despise)
The point I would make is that some of these things take considerably less than one year (1,2 and 3) and others take considerably more than one year (4, 5 and 6), to acquire a base level of competence. Others (point 7) are just a complete waste of time.

Student teachers vary a lot. Some don't relate or connect very easily to students. Others don't have a strong subject knowledge and make elementary mistakes in maths or whatever when teaching. To correct these problems will take a lot of hard work over more than a year.

Student teachers with a strong subject base who connect readily with the kids and are curious about learning quickly become good teachers.

I don't really have a problem with highly successful students (strong subject expertise) being given a crash course in teaching methods (8 weeks - Teach for Australia - is better than 5 weeks - Teach for America) and then being paired with an experienced mentor (Teach for Australia proposal) when they go out and teach in a disadvantaged school

This seems a reasonable response to real problems:
  • the problem of the low and declining subject expertise in many of those who apply to teach
  • the problem of hard to staff disadvantaged schools
  • mathophobia - some primary teachers can't do grade 5 maths according to one expert
  • the long tail of under achievement in Australian schools
The McKinsey report (page 31) recommends scrapping university based teacher training in favour of a more hands on just in time interventionist approach:
  • move the initial period of training from the lecture theatre to the classroom
  • placing coaches in schools to support teachers
  • selecting and developing effective instructional leaders
  • enabling teachers to learn from each other
None of this amounts to radical change which does require delving into points 5 and 6 on the initial list above. However, these issues take more than a year to understand anyway, they tend to be taken up by those with a deep passion for epistemology, which perhaps is not taught well at teacher training courses anyway.

The situation with remote indigenous education in Australia is so bad and so urgent that a quicker, simpler solution ought to be supported --> Teach for Australia. This does not preclude more radical transformations and in fact may help create the conditions to support such transformations.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

saying sorry

Marcia Langton imagines what might be said next Wednesday:
If I were to find just a few words, then I think something like the following, at the very minimum, must be said:

There are no words that could heal the wounds of those people who were taken from their families by the Commonwealth and other Australian governments with no reason other than to deny them their Aboriginal legacy and hence the future of Aboriginal society. But those people who lived through such crimes against humanity demand an apology. They are right to demand an apology, because there can be no justification for those heinous policies. And so it is incumbent on the Commonwealth to apologise; to say, as the Prime Minister of Australia, on behalf of all Australians: I am sorry. I am sorry that you have suffered. I am sorry that your families have suffered. I am sorry because your suffering has diminished us as citizens of a nation that claims to be a Commonwealth, a government for the well being of all.Those who have departed this life in the several generations affected by these policies are remembered, and as Prime Minister of Australia, on behalf of Australians, say: I offer this apology to their descendants: I am sorry for what happened to your ancestors and that such a terrible burden has befallen you; the denial of your family and cultural legacy is a terrible loss.

The nation would be healed if we could consign this history to our past by admitting that it was wrong to take children from their families in order to prevent Aboriginal ways of life and traditions from continuing. I ask that all Australians understand this part of our history and recognise that such terrible wrongs must never be repeated
- Even the hard men know, it must be said

Saturday, February 09, 2008

It sounds like a miracle

an out of context response to Tom Hoffman:
"We -- meaning many US K-12 educational bloggers -- tend to do a lousy job of differentiating between various schemes and strategies for school or educational reform. We just sort of wave our hands a vague morass of undifferentiated correct-sounding happy talk. Rarely do we try to determine which of these things have more or less value than any other. In that sense, we haven't even started a conversation
- Compare and Contrast"
out of context because I'm ignorant about UbD, superficial about Bloom and Miguel writes far too much for me to keep up

But I wanted to say something about school reform and how it is framed

People have been talking about radical school reform for a hundred years (Dewey, Holt, Illich, Papert etc.) but it never happens in a way that scales significantly

Now we have a new radical school reform movement (web2.0) with bloggers becoming frustrated that it's not scaling and whinging about it - why don't other teachers follow my example and do what I do?

Well, this is because the cutting edge doesn't scale because it is the cutting edge. If it did scale then it wouldn't be the cutting edge. Often people are more advanced than others and they don't realise that because it just seems obvious to them because they "get it". At any rate, many teachers shut the door and teach and don't talk or think about epistemology at recess, lunch or after school as they sit in their "teachers cupboard" (a teacher once told me that when she was in Primary school she thought that after school teachers didn't go home but sat in their teachers cupboard)

eg. my favourite, Papert's constructionism, didn't scale not because it didn't work but because it demanded far too much from the average teacher

The only things that scale in education are those that follow the KISS principle

I've recently discovered Teach for America and would like to find out more about it because it does seem to be scaling, making a real difference in quality and is simple enough to qualify for the KISS principle

I've ordered this book to learn more:
One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way by Wendy Kopp

This scheme claims to be succeeding in mobilising large numbers of high quality teacher learners, in cutting bureaucratic red tape (5 week teacher training course), targeting the disadvantaged and appealing to the powerful sentiment of "making a difference"

In the context of a hundred years of failed radical school reform, this sounds like a miracle
"What I have learned in building Teach For America and from our corps members and alumni suggests that it will take three things to raise achievement levels in low-income schools.

First, it will take committing ourselves to the vision that one day, all children in our nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education...

Second, we must recognize that accomplishing our mission will take more of just about everything - including more time and, ultimately, more resources...There's an understandable discomfort with the idea that it will take more money to make schools in low-income areas work. We've all seen and read about too many examples of wasted resources in schools. In some cases merely reallocating the resources already spent in low-income areas can make a difference. And I learned through my experience with Teach for America that money isn't everything, that tough financial situations force high-quality, innovative thinking. But I've also learned that although resources are not the solution to everything, they are necessary to carry out the big plans...

The third aspect of realizing our vision is the recognition that it will take a long-term, institution-building approach...when people think about what makes great organizations work, they see it's not a unique strategy. It's that the organizations have built the systems to achieve results, respond to change, and continually improve...Building effective school systems will not be easy. It will take superior leadership and a lot of hard work. It will require a critical look at all the forces - from how school boards govern to how states regulate - that could prevent school district leadership from taking any an institution-building approach. The good news is that there's no mystery about what it will take. The solutions are within our reach.
- Wendy Kopp, from this amazon reader review"
The Teach for Australia plan, based partly on Teach for America maybe our best shot to improve education

curriculum reform will not improve education without quality teachers

Some deep systemic problems of the Australian education system:
  • mathophobia amongst many students and teachers - see the incredible quote below that many primary teachers can't do grade 5 maths
  • Low status of teaching as a profession and often low quality of new teachers, who have never had very strong content knowledge
  • burnout of older teachers, after years of teaching 5 lines to often difficult classes
  • although our system (Private / government) produces some high quality students we have to acknowledge the long tail of under-achievement in Australian schools
Some extracts from Teach for Australia:
(the need for) Very strong content knowledge, particularly in English and maths. The lack of content knowledge has been a criticism of many existing teachers and teacher education degrees. Applicants to be Associate Teachers would be expected to arrive with outstanding content knowledge. As Dr Lawrence Ingvarsen from the Australian Council of Educational Research has stated: “The research indicates that you cannot use what are known to be effective teaching techniques unless you do understand the content deeply.” (page 9) ...

It is frequently noted that the quality of aspiring teachers has been in decline in the last few decades, particularly at the primary level... Professor Louden from the University of Western Australia notes that a “very large proportion of students [doing combined education degrees] cannot do grade 5 maths, because they have not learnt maths at school and they became primary teachers because it is something you can do without being any good at maths.” The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy found that “participants [education faculty members] reported that many students lacked the literacy skills required to be effective teachers of reading. These students needed help to develop their foundational literacy skills.” (page 11)
I did a search on the Louden reference and found more detail in this article from July 2007, in The Australian:
He said poor maths skills among primary school teachers were an example of the underlying problem of the quality of those entering the education system.

While the educational debate centred on curriculum, the real challenge was to reverse the slide in the quality of people entering the profession.

Professor Louden said changing curriculums would not improve standards. "What drives improvement in schooling is teachers, one by one. It is not even good schools; it is good teachers. Good schools are schools with lots of good teachers," he said.

While half of the variance in school performance was due to the individual student, he said one-third was due to the teacher a student had in a year, 10 per cent year-on-year was in the student's socio-economic background and 5-10 per cent in the school, over and above the teacher.

"The underlying problem is that the social status of teaching has dropped dramatically," he said. "Every occupation that has been invented since 1970 is a graduate occupation and has gone into the occupational hierarchy above teaching.

"When I was a boy, most accountants did not have degrees. Now the biggest faculty in every university is a commerce faculty, and they are all people who are expecting to earn more and have higher social status than teaching."

While the top Australian students were among the best in the world, the system was failing those in the bottom half.

"Throughout the bottom half of kids, we just do not have it right anywhere beyond Years 3 or 4," he said. "Kids in the bottom quartile of mathematics performance at Year 5 probably learn no more mathematics, although they do another five years of mathematics.

With more searching I found this summary of current government thinking from a 2007 Senate Inquiry into the Quality of school education (162 pp):
Convincing evidence presented to the committee has stressed the centrality of good teaching as the factor which has most bearing on educational quality. Good teachers are the key to good performance. Good schools are those which are made up of good teachers. The committee has found that at a time of growing consensus on curriculum improvements, the threat to improved standards may result from the insufficient numbers of more able recruits to the teaching profession, and the failure of employing authorities to place a sufficiently high priority on measures which maintain the professional and intellectual vigour of teachers. This is particularly so in the case of teachers who have been at the chalkface for many years and whose sense of vocation is under strain.

It appears that in some respects the training offered to teachers does not match the needs of schools for more rigorous and challenging teaching. While this may in part be attributed to declining entry standards to teaching, the committee notes that there is some dissatisfaction with the ability of many new teachers to cope with the challenges of teaching. A great deal of emphasis has been placed recently on improving the experience of practise teaching, including its duration, vis-à-vis the time spent on more theoretical aspects of training. This committee has other concerns. It believes that many new teachers have insufficient grounding in the actual subject content they are teaching. That is, they do not know enough history, have limited appreciation of literature through not reading enough of it, and are ignorant of, and frightened of, mathematics and science. This has a direct effect on the quality of educational outcomes because it can impede student intellectual growth.

Schools are our most public institutions. They are the most vulnerable to criticism and are often perceived as failing in their mission. The committee agrees that much of this criticism is unfair, and based on misperceptions. It takes little account of the need for schools and teachers to accommodate and deal with students whose social conditioning, often in dysfunctional families, thwarts their willingness to learn and weakens their ambitions.

But often the criticism is not unfair. Schools and systems need to acknowledge that such criticism often result from informed observation of poor performance or neglect of students' leaning difficulties. The growth of skills and abilities may be stymied as much by the absence of challenge as by class disruption or slow progress of some students in a class. The failure to organise a school so as to maximise learning opportunities for all students partly explains the existence of the long tail of under-achievement which characterises the relative performance of Australian schools, compared to those in Canada, in the various international comparative surveys (page 15)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

superiority of the 20th C brain

Jon Stewart on the CNN Situation Room (multiple screens):
"I was watching the Situation Room with a 20th Century brain where you only process one screen at a time ... instead of my future evolved brain ..."
The video is hilarious (via Gary Stager, thanks)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

fresh turns to stale

The laptop was good for an "education revolution" photo shoot during the election campaign, to demonstrate that Rudd was "fresh" and Howard "stale"

But once elected things change --> FAQ from the government's digital education revolution web page:
Will every Year 9 – 12 student get laptops?

The purpose of the fund is to ensure that every student in Years 9-12 has access to a computer at school. Schools in consultation with their school community will determine their ICT needs. They will be able to purchase a range of equipment, such as laptops, desktop computers, thin clients, interactive whiteboards, data projectors, digital cameras and other technologies.

Will the Fund be used for laptop or desktop computers?

Schools in consultation with their school community will determine their ICT needs. This may include laptops, desktop computers or other ICT equipment.

Will the student be allowed to take a laptop home?

Whether or not students are allowed to take laptops home is at the discretion of the individual school. This decision will need to be made within the requirements of their education jurisdiction.

Can parents access a laptop that has been provided to their child by the school under the Fund?

Equipment purchased with a grant provided under the Fund is for use within the school and is not intended for parental use.
This is business as usual, not an "education revolution"

Here are my views (from December: rudd's non vision ...) outlining a more radical approach:
  • laptops to take home, not computers stuck in labs
  • wide distribution on OLPC in Australian primary schools - it is now possible (givemany)
  • if you have to choose then laptops to the younger kids, not the older kids
  • free software
  • programming languages included in the software distribution
  • teacher inservice would focus on how maths and science concepts could be enhanced by computer usage

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Scratch: drawing polygons using variables

Information: the turning angle (external angle) for a polygon = 360 / (num of sides)

1) Draw a square

Initially setup so the cat draws a square of 50 steps, starting initially facing upwards

Point in direction 0 (up)

repeat 4
move 50 steps
turn 90 degrees

2) Create two variables: side and angle

Set the angle to 360 / side

Insert the side and angle variables into the polygon procedure as shown:

Use the repeat procedure to draw some different shapes (triangle is shown)

3) Use the Number, Variable and Control blocks to setup a repeat until, as shown:

Now insert the procedure inside the repeat until:

Now draw all the shapes at once, 3 to 8 sides:

OECD Schooling Scenarios in Brief

Educational systemic change is in the air - Teach for Australia, McKinsey report, Rudd's "education revolution"

I came across this 2003 article from the OECD which provides a framework to think about how the future of education might evolve as these different scenarios battle it out: The OECD Schooling Scenarios in Brief


Scenario 1.a: "Bureaucratic School Systems Continue"
... the continuation of powerfully bureaucratic systems, strong pressures towards uniformity, and resistance to radical change

Scenario 1.b "Teacher exodus - The 'meltdown scenario'"
... a major crisis of teacher shortages ... triggered by a rapidly ageing profession, exacerbated by low teacher morale and buoyant opportunities in more attractive graduate jobs


Scenario 2.a "Schools as Core Social Centres"
... school here enjoys widespread recognition as the most effective bulwark against social, family and community fragmentation. It is now heavily defined by collective and community tasks

Scenario 2.b "Schools as Focused Learning Organisations"
Schools are revitalised around a strong knowledge rather than social agenda ... ICT used extensively alongside other learning media, traditional and new. Knowledge management to the fore, and the very large majority of schools justify the label "learning organisations"


Scenario 3.a "Learning Networks and the Network Society"
... the abandonment of schools in favour of a multitude of learning networks, quickened by the extensive possibilities of powerful, inexpensive ICT. The de-institutionalisation, even dismantling, of school systems as part of the emerging "network society"

Scenario 3.b "Extending the Market Model"
Existing market features in education are significantly extended ... schooling is commonly viewed as a private as well as a public good. Many new providers are stimulated to come into the learning market, encouraged by thoroughgoing reforms of funding structures, incentives and regulation

Saturday, February 02, 2008

teach for australia

I'd like to become involved in this scheme because it addresses the most important current educational need in Australia.

Teach for Australia: a practical plan to get great teachers into remote schools (23pp)

There is an educational crisis in remote Australia that is not abating. On the key literacy and numeracy benchmark measures, remote students are well behind mainstream levels. Amongst Indigenous students in remote areas, educational results are at catastrophic levels: the most recent publicly available data shows that only 4 percent of remote, Indigenous students in the Northern Territory passed the basic minimum Year 3 reading benchmark. Students are leaving school functionally illiterate with little or no chance of properly engaging in the real economy.

The current approach to remote education must change. The existing system is not delivering, and current reform is too slow. Fundamental reform is required.

Critically, school attendance – a particular problem in remote schools – must be addressed. Welfare payments should be made conditional upon a good school attendance record. The Australian Government has already announced plans to move in this direction. A decisive impact on the quality of school education can also be achieved through focussing on the most important lever to improve educational outcomes – the quality of teachers. ANU research shows that a teacher who rates in the 90th percentile of performance can achieve in half of a year what a 10th percentile teacher can achieve in a full year. Nothing else has been shown to have such a stark impact on results.

This paper outlines a plan to ensure that remote schools receive a higher proportion of the 90th percentile teachers. It recommends the creation and funding of an independent organisation – Teach for Australia – that recruits and evaluates high quality teachers to be available for placement in remote schools. Teach for Australia would create:

• Teach for Australia Fellows. Experienced teachers who have an exceptional track record in delivering results would be recruited as Teach for Australia Fellows and would receive an annual $50,000 fellowship (in addition to the usual salary package) once placed in a remote school. The fellowship would be contingent on the teacher regularly assessing student’s literacy and numeracy performance and ensuring that students are progressing against objective measures in these areas. A teacher who is not delivering would not have their Fellowship renewed.

• Teach for Australia Associate Teachers. The ‘best and brightest’ individuals who are currently not in the teaching profession would be recruited, provided with two months of intensive training and then placed alongside a Fellow in remote schools. A $20,000 stipend would be provided (in addition to the usual salary package). As with the Fellows’ stipend, the Associate Teachers’ stipend would be contingent upon adequate performance. This pathway is modelled on the successful ‘Teach For America’ initiative and the UK’s ‘Teach First’.

As well as recruiting and placing high quality teachers, Teach for Australia would provide the training for the Associate Teachers and professional development for the Fellows. It would also develop tools for effective teaching in the classroom, including ongoing student assessments to inform teaching and to be included as part of regular performance reviews. It would undertake these activities in conjunction with Macquarie University, through the establishment of the Teach for Australia Academy for Effective Teaching. Academy training would also be made available to Indigenous Educators who work in schools where a Fellow-Associate pair are employed.