Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Treehorn Express

Distinguished Guest Writer

Pat Buoncristiani has a remarkable bi-cultural background. For instance, she has been the principal of a school in Victoria, Australia and in Virginia, USA. for several years each. She says “ Perhaps it is only when you look at an environment from the outside that you see it for what it really is. It was only when I went to the USA that I appreciated what we had in Victoria. The sad thing is that over the past few years I have watched the Australian education gradually but inexorably come to more closely resemble the flawed USA system. And this is happening just as the USA begins to wake up…”

She speaks of having no power as a US principal, controlled, as Australian principals are, with ‘laser like precision’ because nothing mattered but state tests.

The school days were extended for failing children; term breaks disappeared for…

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It’s Happening Australia!

I spotted this at the local shopping centre a couple of days ago.

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This is where we are heading Australia, if we continue to follow the GERM model of blanket standardized high stakes testing.

Mums and Dads will be buying these test preparation kits for their kids.

As we watch the  transformation of our kids from learners into data sources, the pressures of school will be extended to the home.

Is this really what we want our parents to buy to support their children s’ learning?

Wouldn’t a BOOK be better?

 

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Bricklaying vs networking

How do we teach kids to read?

Many practices reflect the bricklaying model of reading. The act of reading is made up of several bricks – the phonemic awareness brick, the alphabet brick, the grapho-phonic brick, the sight words bricks, and all the other decoding bricks.
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As long as each brick was laid straight and firm we were pretty confident that our kids would learn to read. We have all seen reading taught like this. “Today we are going to learn about long a”, and the teacher compiles lists of words with the long a sound, shows the children texts in which they identify the long a sound, and then they move on to short a. Another brick is being laid.

As our understanding of the brain develops and with it our understanding of learning, and more particularly our understanding of LANGUAGE learning we discover that learning to read isn’t like building a brick wall at all.

Its far more like growing a network.  social_networks2 (1)

Which brings me to my point – remember Whole Language?

Remember the people who advocated for teaching language – reading, writing, speaking, listening – in an integrated manner, relating each to the other?

Whole Language advocates never suggested we don’t need to understand phonics, they never suggested that grammar has no place in language. What they did say was language is a network and needs to be taught as one, each part integrated with every other part.

It’s not rocket science, and it’s certainly not brick laying.

Let’s look again at how kids learn best, by immersing them in the complexity and helping them make sense of it. We begin with the experience and then we help them discover the rules and procedures that enable them to make sense of the experience in a brain compatible manner.

Kids learn to read by reading just as they learn to ride bikes by getting on them and working it out.

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Amplify – it’s powerful, it’s also dangerous.

I have just watched a promotional video for a new piece of educational technology called an Amplify. It’s a tablet that has been specifically designed for the classroom and it is powerful.

Powerful is a word I often find associated with another word – dangerous.

You can read about it here:

http://www.informationweek.com/education/instructional-it/amplify-tablet-hopes-to-rule-schools/240150167

You can also watch a demonstration of the tablet here:

http://www.amplify.com/tablet/

OK. So what’s the danger? It looks wonderful.

We know from looking at successful school systems around the world that the teacher is the single most important influence in learning at school. Yep. It’s Finland again! The meta studies done by Robert Marzano reinforce this.

But what is the first thing the teacher does with an Amplify tablet at the start of the lesson? She starts the class by “pressing a button” and she checks who is in her class by looking at her screen. Whoa!  I thought the first thing a teacher should do at the start of a school day or lesson is establish a relationship with her class. I thought the most important thing was to look at the kids, scan the room, make a couple of encouraging remarks that set a tone of shared endeavor, not look at a screen and press a button.

So here is my first fear – that learning becomes mediated through the tablet rather than through the teacher, that learning ceases being a shared human activity and becomes an interaction between a screen and a student.

Of course this is not inevitable. We can hope that teachers will see that the Amplify is a tool to make the art and science of teaching more effective. But pressures on teachers, administrators and school districts are growing and the main pressure is to pass the standardized, multiple choice tests that are sweeping across and bedding down in GERM countries.

The Amplify tablet is the perfect device to train kids to pass these tests.

For example, the Quick Poll enables the teacher to run a fast true/false test to check on understanding. What depth of understanding can be evaluated when the only possible answers are ‘true’ or ‘false’? The demonstration suggests that instruction can then be ‘differentiated’ on the basis of these T/F results, but clearly this can only be at the most superficial level both in terms of the conceptual depth of the topic being studied and the learning needs of the individual student.

We see an example of a Khan Academy mathematics video on ratios – all good stuff. But the testing component is a perfect copy of the standardized test four point multiple choice questions with which we are all so familiar.

The example project completed at home by a student is a cut and paste affair from a collection of videos and information gleaned from the on board Encyclopedia Britannica, personalized by a photo taken by child.

The Amplify looks to be the perfect tool to prepare kids to take these tests, and because these tests have already shown their power to narrow the curriculum, to sideline creativity and the development of effective thinkers, to devalue and disempower teachers, the Amplify can also be dangerous.

It is instructional to note that Amplify is a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the CEO of Amplify is Joel Klein. Klein was the former Chancellor of New York City Schools and one of the primary drivers of high stakes standardized testing in the USA. He was also a powerful influence on Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Minister for Education Peter Garret and we are watching the debilitating effect high stakes blanket testing is already having in this country as standards fall instead of lift since the introduction of NAPLAN in 2008.

There is a saying “Follow the money”.  We have already seen the vast amounts of money being spent on testing instead of learning. While the Amplify sells at a more appealing price point that an IPad, there is a $99 per year ‘plan’ attached.

What a pity that we are not able to see the launch of such a powerful tool in a different environment. If only we were free of the testing straight jacket, if we trusted well trained teachers to do their job, if we valued thinking above remembering, creativity and innovation above the ability to repeat learned information. Perhaps then the Amplify would be just ‘powerful’ and not also ‘dangerous’.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I am kicking myself now.

There are moments when my conscience strikes a killer blow. It happened to me when my son was in his second year at university and clearly facing a few challenges. I knew he was a very intelligent young man (as are all our sons, right?) but his grades did not seem to reflect his ability.

I asked a question that I really should have asked years before. I’m an educator. I’m a parent. Why hadn’t I woven the two together into a seamless whole? Human? Fallible? Guilty to both.

So, what was the question?

“How do you study? How do you read the text book?”

His answer floored me.

“I just read it!” he said, with a look of incredulity that I should ask such an obvious question.

After a moment’s thought I asked him “Do you use a pen or a highlighter? What sort of notes do you take? How do you transfer the material in the book into your working memory?”

He had no clear idea what I was talking about.

Why hadn’t I realized years ago that in 14 years of formal schooling no one had ever actually taught him HOW TO LEARN?

He had been taught mathematics, geography, history, poetry, wood and metal working, literacy … but he had never been systematically, developmentally and consistently taught HOW TO LEARN.

If he was at school today he would be systematically taught how to pass tests. That’s not the same as being taught how to learn. That’s just about how to perform in a task and a context that has virtually nothing to do with life anywhere other than in the classroom. Learning to pass tests is a closed system confined to the school and of no value to the creative thinker and independent, life long learner in the world outside.

What should he have been taught?

At least he should have been taught how to interrogate a text, how to recast the information into graphic form, how to isolate the main points and the supporting points, how to create a mind map that integrates the new information with what he already knew, how to identify new vocabulary and build up a word bank of all the words that belong to that family and understand the threads of meaning that make them family (electricity, electric, electrician, electron, electronic, electromagnetic and so on) and how to formulate questions that demonstrated what he did understand and revealed what he didn’t.

At least he should have been taught that to “just read it” guarantees that the information will be here today and gone tomorrow.

But most importantly he should have been taught how to be a metacognitive, self aware learner. A learner who understands how he learns best, who can monitor his own learning and understanding, who can adjust his learning strategies when he finds what he is doing isn’t working as well as it could, that learner is well on the way to becoming a life long, independent learner.

In our book “Developing Mindful Students, Skillful Thinkers, Thoughtful Schools” we explore and demystify the importance of metacognition and provide a wealth of practical suggestions for the classroom.

And that makes my conscience trouble me even more.

Why didn’t I know all this when my kids were young?

Why didn’t I monitor what was happening at school more closely?

How did 14 years go by without me realizing that my son didn’t know how to learn effectively because no one had ever taught him?

Maybe that is why I am so passionate about it now.

 

 

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