Monthly Archives: October 2014

Principal: school doesn’t work for most kids

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School doesn’t work for most kids, which is why some schools are starting to be more flexible in their teaching and learning. Shutterstock

“Secondary school, at least, only really works for about a third of students,” according to Templestowe College principal Peter Hutton. Speaking in Melbourne last week, he also asked how “we made learning, something that in younger years was so innately pleasurable, get so bad”.

Hutton used the metaphor of schools as a bus, where 30 kids get on the bus, the teacher sits at the front and, no matter how much the view is of interest to the child sitting on the bus, we can’t stop. Instead, we say, “I’m sorry, son, we can’t stop to look at that, we have a schedule to keep.”

But at Templestowe College in Melbourne, Peter Hutton is doing something different. Not only are students able to take classes outside their year level, they are actively engaged in the school in hiring and firing staff, in offering specialised courses based on their own areas of expertise and in challenging expectations around school days. But why and how?

Students take responsibility for their learning

At this school, students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning. They are able to make decisions about what they study, in what year level and in what order. This approach, which mirrors what is done at many democratic schools, is known as student-directed learning.

This style of learning is popular at universities and in schools. However, it may be vastly different from many of our experiences at school. This approach involves allowing students to direct the topics of study, the length of time they study a topic and the way they are assessed. At Templestowe, the school has partnered with La Trobe University to meet students’ interest in studying computer gaming.

Students whose subject choices are not offered by the school complete what is known as a Personalised Learning Project (PLP). They set the objectives of the project, choose a staff mentor and then complete the project.

Students who are given the ability to plan their own learning are said to improve their achievement and build on their capacity to learn. They work in partnership with their teachers to encourage independence and take charge of their own learning.

Hutton gives the example of a student who was in Year 7, but wanted to sit in on a Year 12 Physics class. The student was able to do so, but only if he didn’t interrupt the learning of the Year 12 students. They found that the student was not only surviving, he was thriving.

When asked about this, his classmates said:

Well it’s a bit weird actually … because he sometimes knows more than we do.

Much like in democratic schools, the school offers students the chance to control their learning to meet their needs. This chance to control learning is in line with school improvement practices that empower students to shape and direct the education they experience and the management of the school.

Research has shown that students who are engaged in active inquiry investigations of different concepts enjoy greater learning gains than students who are not. They are also more likely to learn more about how they learn, to meet their learning goals and to experience school as more pleasurable.

Students’ learning plans are individualised and flexible

One of the more controversial aspects of Templestowe is its flexibility. Start times for students vary according to what the principal describes as research around sleep patterns for adolescents. They received media coverage for their staggered start times of 7.15am, 9am and 10.15am with finish times of 1.15pm, 3.30pm and 5.15pm.

There is a good deal of research that indicates that adolescents should be able to start later if they feel the need. Some research has said that teenage moodiness and poor school behaviour could be mitigated by better sleep patterns, including later sleep and later rising, with schools factoring that in to their starts. Similarly, a 2010 study concluded that even modest delays in start times improved adolescent moodiness, health, alertness and achievement.


Students choose when they go to and from school. Shutterstock
Click to enlarge

What are the problems with this flexibility?

Some of the problems will stem from epistemological differences between this school’s approach and the established expectations of parents and education commentators. For example, some parents may not trust their child to take responsibility for their own learning, believing that curriculum experts and teachers are better placed to make those decisions.

Further, they may find it difficult to understand students taking control of the hiring and firing of staff. Some may struggle with the idea that it is a students’ role to mentor and tutor other students, or to offer courses and activities to other students. It may be seen as a conflict of interest to have students working for the school as receptionists and maintenance staff.

Or it might be difficult to understand why a student of Year 7 age might want to enrol in Year 12 Physics. Or why, for that matter, the Year 12 students wouldn’t roundly object to that child being in their class.

Similarly, when it comes to start times, the idea that children can choose when they start might be shocking or horrifying for some parents. If only because they may not like the idea of having to make multiple student drop-offs!

Original article found here.

Lessons Learned While Shadowing Students

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Original article found here.
I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching my own classes; I am the High School Learning Coach, a new position for the school this year. My job is to work with teachers and admins. to improve student learning outcomes.

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

My class schedules for the day
(Note: we have a block schedule; not all classes meet each day):

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Geometry

9:30 – 10:55: Spanish II

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: World History

1:25 – 2:45: Integrated Science

The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Math

9:30 – 10:55: Chemistry

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: English

1:25 – 2:45: Business

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately change the following three things:

mandatory stretch halfway through the class
put a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play in the first and final minutes of class
build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day. Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine. I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.
Key Takeaway #2

High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.

Obviously I was only shadowing for two days, but in follow-up interviews with both of my host students, they assured me that the classes I experienced were fairly typical.

In eight periods of high school classes, my host students rarely spoke. Sometimes it was because the teacher was lecturing; sometimes it was because another student was presenting; sometimes it was because another student was called to the board to solve a difficult equation; and sometimes it was because the period was spent taking a test. So, I don’t mean to imply critically that only the teachers droned on while students just sat and took notes. But still, hand in hand with takeaway #1 is this idea that most of the students’ day was spent passively absorbing information.

It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it.

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing. I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

Offer brief, blitzkrieg-like mini-lessons with engaging, assessment-for-learning-type activities following directly on their heels (e.g. a ten-minute lecture on Whitman’s life and poetry, followed by small-group work in which teams scour new poems of his for the very themes and notions expressed in the lecture, and then share out or perform some of them to the whole group while everyone takes notes on the findings.)
set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. This is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.
Ask every class to start with students’ Essential Questions or just general questions born of confusion from the previous night’s reading or the previous class’s discussion. I would ask them to come in to class and write them all on the board, and then, as a group, ask them to choose which one we start with and which ones need to be addressed. This is my biggest regret right now – not starting every class this way. I am imagining all the misunderstandings, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the collaborative skills, and the autonomy we missed out on because I didn’t begin every class with fifteen or twenty minutes of this.
Key takeaway #3

You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention. It’s normal to do so – teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It’s really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out. Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day – that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.

In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication. I would become near apoplectic last year whenever a very challenging class of mine would take a test, and without fail, several students in a row would ask the same question about the test. Each time I would stop the class and address it so everyone could hear it. Nevertheless, a few minutes later a student who had clearly been working his way through the test and not attentive to my announcement would ask the same question again. A few students would laugh along as I made a big show of rolling my eyes and drily stating, “OK, once again, let me explain…”

Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed. I was anxious. I had questions. And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions. Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student. We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.
I would make my personal goal of “no sarcasm” public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it. I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year. In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.
I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do – a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished. This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder. I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations. This could lead to better “backwards design” from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes.

How Common Core is Slowly Changing My Child

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mrsmomblog

A Letter to Commissioner King and the New York State Education Department:

I have played your game for the past two years.  As an educator, I have created my teaching portfolio with enough evidence so I can prove that I am doing my job over the course of the school year. I am testing my students on material that they haven’t yet learned in September, and then re-testing them midway through the year, and then again at the end of the year to track and show their growth. Between those tests, I am giving formative assessments. I am taking pictures of myself at community events within my district to prove that I support my school district and the community. I am teaching using the state-generated modules that you have created and assumed would work on all students, despite learning style, learning ability, or native language.   I am effectively proving…

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