Science Stuff Teaching


I wanted to say ‘Happy Birthday’ to a couple of good friends, and since I’m in Portugal I looked up how to do it in Portuguese1. One way to say it is ‘Parabens!’ – and my chemistry ears pricked up a bit. In chemistry the parabens are a family of compounds derived from parahydroxybenzoic acid. They are widely used as preservatives.

Well, I guess really it was my ‘teacher ears’ that pricked up, because a possible approach to teaching a chemistry lesson about the parabens seemed to arrive. As a lesson plan it would need to include a lot more action and involvement from the students, but I thought I’d share a little bit of the explanatory portion here, just for fun2.

In teaching, I might start with the ‘Parabens means Happy Bithday in Portuguese’ thing, just as a quirky mnemonic device, but then get into the explanation. I’d probably bring in some cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and other products and point out the ‘methylparaben’ and ‘propylparaben’ in the list of ingredients. The lesson would probably come as part of an organic chemistry topic in a high school chemistry course, at a point where students already understood chemical bonding and some of the conventions of how organic molecules are represented:

This structure is for the actual parahydroxybenzoic acid (italics indicate where the name comes from). The other chemicals in the family are made by adding methyl, ethyl, propyl and so on groups where the R is on the diagram above, and that’s a discussion for a later time.

So, what do we see in this structure, and why does it have the name it has? The first feature is the hexagonal ‘ring’ structure. This is known as the ‘benzene ring’, and the chemical compound benzene, which used to be used in things like drycleaning and decaffeinating coffee, would be just the ring without the extra things sticking out at the top and bottom. They even used to use it as aftershave – it smells… interesting, but I personally wouldn’t like to smell of it.

(Because there are so many carbons in organic chemistry, we save time and energy by not drawing them in diagrams, they are just ‘taken as read’. Everywhere the lines join there is a carbon atom.) The ring is shown here with alternating single and double bonds, three of each. The ring is made up of carbon atoms bonded to each other, with a ‘spare’ bond on each pointing outward. Remember, carbon can form a total of 4 covalent bonds, and if you look at each of the corners of the hexagon and imagine an extra line pointing outward, linked to a hydrogen atom you’ll see that there are 4 lines in total connected to it. In benzene itself, hydrogen atoms are connected to the ends of the ‘spare’ bonds.

But we know a few things about double and single bonds. We know that they come out at an angle, and we know that double bonds are shorter than single bonds. So if the benzene ring really was as it looks in this diagram, the hexagon would not be regular, it would have 3 short sides (the double bonds) and 3 longer sides (the single bonds). It would also be kind of ‘crownshaped’, going up and down, if we rotated it around and looked at it from the side.

When we actually do the measurements on the benzene ring, though (and how those measurements are done on something as tiny as a molecule is a story for another day), we find that it’s flat, not crownshaped, and all six bonds are the same length.

That means the picture we have above is not quite right: they’re not double bonds and single bonds, they’re sort of ‘one and a half’ bonds. We won’t get to talk about it here in high school, but at university you can look forward to the discussion of how the p electrons in the carbon atoms form new π molecular orbitals above and below the ring… anyway, that’s for later.

I said benzene ‘used to be used’ for quite a lot of purposes, including drycleaning, but it’s not used as much any more, because it’s quite carcinogenic (cancer causing). It turns out that those unusual bonds mean it’s very good at attacking DNA, and broken DNA is what causes cancers.

Some of the health concerns around the use of parabens arise from the idea that, because it contains a benzene ring, it might have some of the same bad properties. You’ll be doing some research for your assignment about the chemistry of those claims and the scientific evidence, and will be asked to take and support a position on whether parabens should be banned, or used for a narrower range of purposes.

OK, so we’ve got the ring, now what about the stuff hanging off it? We’ll start with the easy one first, at the bottom. This is a ‘hydroxy’ group – hence the ‘hydroxy’ in the name – and is just an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom and the ring. The hydroxy group is the characteristic group of the alcohols, and we’ve looked at its properties a bit already.

At the top of our diagram, across the ring from the hydroxy group, is a carboxylic acid group. This involves a carbon atom that is double-bonded to an oxygen atom and single-bonded to another oxygen atom that in turn is bonded to a hydrogen atom (in this diagram they’ve represented it with an R instead of an H because it’s also possible to add other groups on in place of the hydrogen). That last part looks a bit like the hydroxy group, and has some similar properties, but it’s not a hydroxy group, it’s part of the larger acid group. There’s more to say here about electronegativity and electron density, but we’ll get to that later.

The last part of the name we need to explain is the ‘para’. It’s a way of saying where the two groups are around the ring. We start from the biggest attached group, which in this case is the acid group at the top. You can see that we could then put the hydroxy group on any of the other 5 carbon atoms in the ring. We need to be able to say where it is, because different locations will give the molecule slightly different properties.

Going clockwise around the ring, if the hydroxy group was next to the acid group, on the right, that position is called ‘ortho’. It would be possible (maybe, depending on the space in the molecule) to make ‘orthohydroxybenzoic acid’. I’ll give you a minute to draw that in your book and name it. Moving to the next position, that position is called ‘meta’. And then, when the molecule is as it actually is here, which the two groups opposite each other, the position is called ‘para’.

(I’d probably tie ‘ortho’ to ‘orthodox’, ‘meta’ to meta discussions, but this is already too long!)

You might think we’d need to have 5 labels since there are 5 positions, but if you imagine the hydroxy group in that bottom left corner, you can always just flip the molecule around its vertical axis, and the group will be in the bottom right ‘meta’ position… so it turns out we only need 3 labels, since it is how close that is important, not which side.

In a real lesson there’d be lots more questions, discussion, linking to past lessons and students’ life experience, discussion of how to answer exam questions on the topic, digressions into the conventions of how diagrams are drawn and what they really mean, and so on. But hopefully, at least, this has given you some sense of the kinds of processes that go on in a teacher’s head when preparing a lesson… and why it’s so much more than just information transfer. (And, linked to that, why a teacher can do a much better job than a textbook, all other things being equal.)

Oh, and for further reading, here’s the (excellent) Wikipedia article on the parabens:

  1. I’m fascinated with foreign languages and tend to try to figure out things like the words on labels. The Romance languages share enough Latin roots with English that it’s usually possible to piece together what’s going on with a little work. I’m fascinated by why Portuguese and Spanish are so different from one another when the countries are right next door with a land border (which makes it more mystifying to me than French and English).
  2. …and because it’s 3 am here and there’s nothing else to do. My efforts at synching my sleep cycle with here, coupled with the looong flight meant that I got my 9 hours of sleep from 6 pm to 3 am.







Social Promotion

I wrote very briefly – one dot point in a long list – about this issue in 2008, but thought I’d unpack it in a bit more detail now.

Full disclosure up front: I repeated Grade 1. I was upset on the day they told me – and it wasn’t managed well, because I’d been in the Grade 2 classroom already for about a week and had to walk back down the verandah to the room I’d been in the previous year. But I settled in very quickly, made good friends… and the extra maturity meant that I was happy and secure and achieved well throughout school.

This is not really about my personal story, though, it’s more of a policy issue. In those olden days, sometimes if a student wasn’t deemed ready to proceed to the next grade he or she was ‘kept back’. Perhaps there was a bit of a stigma, but particularly in the younger grades kids are incredibly plastic, and recovered in minutes or hours. Maybe parents struggled with it a bit more.

Since then, though, the notion that ‘self esteem’ is the most important thing, and the fear of scarring their fragile self-concepts, have led to a near-universal policy of ‘social promotion’ – keeping kids with their classmates, stepping through the grades in lockstep.

I want to suggest that this is a fatally flawed policy. When students are in Year 8, reading at a Year 2 level, it’s very difficult for them to learn much of *anything*, since many of the high school learning activities involve reading and writing.

Ironically, this daily failure for years *has to* be more damaging to a student’s self-concept than a single event when they’re very young. So, even measured on the basis of the very thing it is supposed to achieve, the policy fails.

It also makes teaching much more difficult, which takes teacher time and energy away from *all* students: the costs to society as a whole are incalculable.

In some ways being ‘kept back’ used to be seen punitively or negatively: ‘you haven’t worked hard enough’ or whatever. But it needn’t: it can be seen in terms of extra support. It shouldn’t be as simple as ‘repeating’ the same year over again. There should be extra support from a literacy report teacher to ensure that the child ‘passes’ – is able to do the kinds of work and the kinds of thinking that are required for the next grade.

Side note: many Australian states put a huge amount of money and energy into ‘outcomes-based assessment’ in the 90s, and if properly understood this would have meant that students didn’t proceed to the next level until they had achieved the outcomes of the previous level. Never happened that way, though.

We know that there is a huge range of maturity within a particular age: you just have to look at a Year 8 class to see the range of physical maturity, and the range of mental and emotional maturity is likely to be at least as great. And yet we march them through in lock step, as though age was a proxy for stage… and it just isn’t, or at least is a very imperfect one.

In one sense it would take more resources: serious learning support assistance for any kid who is repeating a year. In another, though, when we count the costs to schools and society of kids being in that investment would pay off.

‘nother side note: I also know there’s nothing inevitable abut grades at all, and there are alternative models with ‘vertical curriculum’ and so on. But I’m a realist, and think there are relatively undramatic changes we can make that will lead to dramatic benefits.

So, there’s my case, in simple terms: it’s time to have a serious second ook at the policy of ‘social promotion’.


What’s The Difference?

Here’s the second layer of the discussion I started in yesterday’s post about teaching. Our mission in this particular project is not so much to focus on enhancing teaching for all students, although that would be a nice side effect.

Rather, we could think about it as finding ways to specifically enhance the experience of school and the level of success for disadvantaged students. But that’s not quite it either. We’re dealing with the issue of ‘difference’ in the classroom.

It’s a truism that ‘every student is different’, but the notion of difference plays out in all sorts of ways. Teachers tend to think of students as being on a continuum of academic ability from the least to the most capable, for example. Often there’s an associated recognition that students have ability in different subject areas, and may have certain learning difficulties as well.

There are a huge number of possible dimensions of difference beyond the academic, of course – differences of race, sex, gender, wealth and poverty, family and social background, learning styles and multiple intelligences1 and so on.

There’s often talk of ‘differentiated instruction’ – different teaching and different tasks for different students. It’s a nice idea and a necessary one, but there are two problems with it:

  1. It’s very difficult for any teacher to ‘do enough’: maybe there can be two different activities, maybe even three, but if it’s true that ‘every student is different’ then there’s always more to do.
  2. It’s usually imagined in terms of compensating for ‘deficits’ on the part of the students. Not always – there’s recognition of differentiation for the gifted and talented, for example – but often it’s thought of as ‘these are the problems with the students – here are my solutions’.

It goes even deeper than that, though. If the teacher always gives little Johnny the ‘easier’, lower level work throughout his school career, his opportunities in later life will be restricted. He may not be able to have as broad a choice of possible occupations as his actual abilities would have offered.

These are real tensions, and are not simple to address: failing to achieve on more difficult tasks all the way through school would have been similarly unhelpful to little Johnny2.

I’ll get into a little more of a theoretical discussion below, but let me try to clarify: one key focus of our study is to look at how teachers can draw on difference as a resource in the classroom, rather than seeing difference as a set of deficits to be overcome. That is, saying ‘every student is different’ needn’t necessarily be a source of guilt and stress on the part of teachers who feel that they can never really do enough. It can also be a very positive thing in that the classroom is full of students with different knowledge, life experience, skills, interests and even ways of viewing the world. And there are ways to draw on and attend to those differences that mean students can contribute to each other’s learning in rich ways.

There’s an underlying issue in that last sentence, which is that seeing the classroom as more of a collaborative learning space, in which students learn from each other as well as from the teacher, can also help to share the load and enhance the ability of the classroom to meet the needs of every student. The teacher is still the director, still the one ultimately responsible for what goes on in the classroom, but considering the students as an educational resource much more than is typically the case is one way of addressing difference in a positive way.

(There’s a whole other rant for another day about how assessment and standardised testing tend to flatten and kill this kind of approach, but let’s leave that aside for now.)

To return to little Johnny for a moment (and please do mentally extend this to think about the differences of little Jane, Abdul, Mandurway, Tarquin, Kimiko and the rest of their classmates), Nancy Fraser has developed a theoretical approach to justice that might help to unpack some of the issues a little more deeply.

There are issues of recognition of difference – of not submerging students’ differences in a dominant mainstream approach to schooling. Some of the best-intentioned teachers can run into trouble with this, when they define equity as ‘I treat every student exactly the same’. It’s a good aspiration, but what it typically ends up meaning in practice (though not always) is ‘I treat every student like a white, straight, middle class person’. Yet clearly there are black, gay, poor students… and black, straight, wealthy students, and brown, androgynous, middle class students… a whole rainbow of possibilities. Recognising difference doesn’t and shouldn’t mean suppressing the mainstream, it means honouring all identities, cultures, traditions and other features of difference3.

Part of the challenge that Fraser recognised is that the ‘recognition’ dimension is necessary but not sufficient, and in fact if carried to extremes can be counterproductive. Poorer students typically do less well in school and have less successful (in terms of their own happiness, longevity, comfort and so on) outcomes than other students. ‘Recognition’ that they come from poor backgrounds shouldn’t result in the kinds of programs and approaches that perpetuate that poverty. Little Johnny shouldn’t be left unchallenged to do well because of his background.

So a complementary dimension is that of distribution, which focuses on equity. My friends on the Right may howl at this one, but it’s true that there are very large inequities in society in terms of the ways certain goods are distributed, and that those inequities are not inevitable, and are often not the fault of those who become their victims. In brief, little Johnny didn’t decide which side of the tracks to be born.

Distribution needs to be held in tension with recognition: any approach to distribution that achieves its goals by submerging the identities of the students (‘treating them all the same’) has problems, but any response to recognition that perpetuates the existing disadvantages similarly has problems.

Seeking real, practical ways through these complex dilemmas – ways that actually change what Ms Knightsbridge does in her classroom on Monday mornings (and Friday afternoons) – is what we’re about. It’s not easy, but we think it’s worthwhile.

  1. Which I consider as useful ways of thinking about learning rather than fixed student characteristics
  2. I have concerns about the ‘social promotion’ policy that sees kids pushed up to the next grade at the end of the year whether or not they’ve finished with this one, as well, which I mentioned a few years ago:
  3. Naturally this raises some complex questions, since it’s not as simple as universal approval. What of cultures and traditions that are actively harmful to people? The questions are not at all simple, but there’s not really space here to get into more of the tough ones.

Religion Science Stuff Teaching

Critical Thinking and/or Creationism (in Tennessee)

Kind of ambivalent about this story, really. Critical thinking is a good thing. Science should involve students critiquing theories and considering evidence:

But considering the sources, you have to wonder: I’d have no issues at all if the same standards of critical thinking are applied to both evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory. The worry for me is if this bill was used as cover to present a heap of creationist critiques of evolution while at the same time presenting ID as settled science…

But I really do think it’s possible to ‘teach the controversy’ without indoctrinating.


Would you?

Ethics dilemma. There were some very good presentations at a conference this weekend on the disasters wrought in schools by NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) testing. It is clear, based on the research evidence, that NAPLAN leads to ‘teaching to the test’ and impoverishes education, particularly for the most vulnerable students, and that it’s riddled with rorting. Not too dissimilar to the US ‘No Child Left Behind’ program.

Inevitably, testing in science is also on the agenda – the NAPSL (National Assessment Program – Scientific Literacy). It hasn’t been rolled out nationally yet, but I’ve already been required, in writing my most recent textbook chapter, to develop half a dozen ‘NAPSL-style’ questions for the chapter.

Now, here’s the dilemma: it’s not that hard to make those kinds of questions. And there’s a lot of money to be made in creating test-prep booklets for the NAPSL tests. But I’m fundamentally opposed to the testing and its effects on education in this country.

My personal decision is to walk away from the money because I just can’t square it with my values.


The 7-Lesson Teacher

Very harsh, but very enlightening. If we could find a way to put Mr Gatto, and all other teachers, out of the business of teaching these 7 lessons, we’d have made a start on fixing education:

I disagree profoundly with his proposed free-market solution, however: all that would do is further entrench the existing inequities in society. No, I really do believe there are ways to address these 7 lessons within schooling: but it will require radical thinking, commitment and – yep, sorry – money.

Musings Teaching

School Holiday Traffic

Driving in to work this morning, the traffic was blissfully sane. As it always is during school holidays. It occurred to me that, rather than spending billions on new roadworks to ease traffic congestion, simply getting the majority of the ‘school run’ off the road would make a very dramatic difference to Brisbane’s traffic flows.

There are two parts to a solution:

One is a massive public education campaign to get more kids travelling to school on foot, bicycle and public transport. It *is* safe in Brisbane, but many parents seem to think it’s not, so they drive them to school. An associated piece of this puzzle is reinstating lockers at school so kids don’t have to carry all their books to and fro each day – something that would also have significant spinal health benefits.

Another is to separate the two morning traffic ‘bubbles’ – the morning peak hour as those who need to be in the office at 9 am head to work and the parallel rush with school starting at 8:30 or 9. If school started at 10 or 10:30 and went a bit later students would learn as much (or more – recent research shows that teens learn better when they get to sleep in in the morning) but the traffic congestion would be eased considerably.

The latter step would also to some extent ‘force’ the former, since parents would be at work already and unable to drive kids to work.

I reckon the whole proposal has a lot of things going for it.


C’mon, teachers!

I mentioned a few days ago that I have been answering people’s questions on Yahoo Answers.

Lots of students ask questions they’ve been asked, in tests or homework assignments. Quite a lot of these are in multiple choice format – and quite a lot of them are terrible. There are no correct options, or two or more, or they reinforce common student misconceptions, or…

Teachers are good and competent, generally, and trying to do the right thing. I blame the trend toward more multiple-choice questions for part of the problem – they don’t seem that hard to make, but it’s actually quite difficult to make really good quality ones.

Whatever it is, it’s a real worry when the assessment tasks don’t fairly assess the knowledge, and in fact may be ‘antieducational’ in confirming misconceptions.

Science Stuff Teaching

My benign new addiction

So, I went to Yahoo Answers (I refuse to add the exclamation mark!) a few days ago to ask for help with a technical difficulty I was having playing Far Cry. They weren’t able to help much at all, but while I was there I figured out that I could answer people’s maths and science questions – and I’m hooked!

On Level 1, where you start, you can only answer 20 questions a day. I burned through that pretty quick, and then was jonesing for the next 22 hours while I waited for it to be the next day so I could answer 20 more. Only took a couple of days to get to Level 2, where I can answer 40, and work has slowed me down a bit so that I mostly have spare capacity now: I can pop in and answer a question whenever the shakes get too bad.

I really enjoy it, and just quietly and modestly, I think I’m pretty good at it. An awful lot of the questions that come up look like people’s homework, but (unlike lots of other answerers) I refuse to just give the questioners the answer and let them copy it down. I always try to explain the concept as clearly as possible, teach them so they really understand what’s going on and why, and often leave part of the work for them to do themselves, having given them a large nudge in the right direction.

It’s very satisfying work, and partly quenches my need to teach science – I’m always being tempted to go back to high school science teaching, but for the moment they just pay me too well to do what I do now. Often several people will answer the same question, and it’s interesting to compare different approaches, and I learn something in the process. Of course, often people will also give answers that are plain wrong: risks of going to the web for answers.

I’ve cut down on some other forums (and abandoned the game of Far Cry!), so the total time on the web is probably not increased. I suspect the infatuation phase will cool as well… but in the meantime, I’m having fun, and people are getting (arguably) better answers than they would otherwise.

Politics Teaching

Mercantilisation and Education

Businesses used to have (at least) two purposes – making the best possible ‘product’, and making money. Over the past perhaps 50 years we have seen a shift in the direction of making the cheapest, crappiest possible product and maximising shareholder return (money). This is not inevitable, it’s just an evolution in our consumerist society. We’ve also seen a strong ideological push that prefers private, user-pays approaches to things over publicly funded services and utilities. That just takes us further in the same direction: it’s all about the shareholders, and the customers get screwed as hard as possible. It’s a very odd and ultimately unsustainable way to run a society – it makes it inevitable that the rich get richer and the poor poorer, and it destroys the middle class, the engine of upward mobility and economic growth.

Now, apply those ideas to education. The notion of education as a ‘public good’ – if all citizens are well educated, the whole society prospers, both in business and in less tangible ways – is key, and it has been dramatically eroded. The valorisation of private schools at the expense of public has gone further here in Australia than in the US, but the trends are similar. It becomes about the education an individual’s parents can afford, rather than the education the society as a whole needs the person to receive. Education comes to be seen as a user-pays ‘private good’.

Doing that means we end up with a large portion of society studying in under-funded, under-resourced and depressed public schools that don’t do the best possible job of educating them (despite the sometimes heroic efforts of committed teachers). Apart from anything else, that robs society of the brains of very bright students who happen to be born on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. It also perpetuates and enhances inequity in society.

It’s hard to imagine the way out, but passionate advocacy on the part of those of us who care is a start.

(And yes, of course the financial side of schooling should be administered well: but education is not a money-making business it’s a society-building business… the ‘triple bottom line’ would be a great addition.)

Science Stuff Teaching

What would it cost to let them teach creationism in schools?

I’m currently reading a special issue of the journal ‘Cultural Studies in Science Education’, devoted to issues around science and religion. The topics are fairly broad, but given that science education is the focus, creationism in schools is one central concern.

Lots of energy from lots of scientists and other interested folk – and not a few court cases – goes into fighting the introduction of creationism into school science courses and textbooks in America. (The issue is much less live almost everywhere else in the world.)

It got me thinking: maybe that energy could be better used elsewhere? Perhaps in creating better teaching materials around evolution – or just doing more science.

Not that I’m saying creationism is correct – I’m pretty sure that at least the 6/6000 form is completely incompatible with science and what we know about the earth and life. That’s not the point. The point is “What is the real harm if people teach creationism in schools?”

They will also have to teach evolution, because it’s part of the science syllabus. Maybe the creationists would put energy into fighting to have it removed, but that’s extremely unlikely to be successful – the most likely outcome would be parallel teaching of two (there really should be many more, encompassing creation stories from a variety of cultures, but I doubt that would happen) views of how we got here.

Is the worry that students would be convinced? That more students would leave school believing in creationism than evolution? Surely that position signals weakness in the evolutionists’ confidence in the explanatory power of their account? In other words, if evolutionists are happy that the evidence strongly supports evolution, and does not support creation, perhaps they should work at improving science education and students’ ability to understand and interpret evidence, and then trust the students to choose for themselves?

Which students are likely to be convinced? Those who already have very strong creationist teaching at home and church. And those students were already convinced anyway, so adding creationism at school doesn’t change much. I suspect that in those communities, even without creationist teaching, teachers are rolling their eyes and sighing heavily as they teach evolution as ‘just a theory’.

I guess I’m just talking about choosing what hills to die on… and I’m not convinced that the benefits of fighting creationism in schools outweigh the costs.

Musings Teaching

Disciplined Eclecticism

Chatting in the car with Suzie the other day, and she asked me ‘what’s the key educational idea you’re all about?’1 The discussion was pretty much about ‘branding’ myself: Mr Piaget has his stage theory, Mr Kohlberg his moral reasoning, Mr Vygostky his ZPD and so on… What will be my legacy and what will I be known for?

So far I’ve written two books – ‘Weaving Narrative Nets’ and ‘Undead’ Theories. They’re both about educational research, and both talk about processes of pulling together bits from a variety of places to make something that’s well adapted to a particular purpose. I’ve used the term ‘bricolage’, borrowed from other people, before, but it doesn’t really capture it.

I’ve also used the term ‘disciplined eclecticism’ though, and that’s what came to mind when Suzie asked the question. There are a couple of things that get me to that point:

  1. There’s nothing new under the sun – all the gentlemen named above created their own theories and ‘brands’, but (and the best of them knew this and acknowledged it) they were really each taking up ideas that dated back at least to the Greeks, and probably much further 2
  2. I have always believed that all human situations – and educational situations are just a special subset of those – are too complex and multifaceted for a single theoretical perspective or approach to capture enough of them to be useful for our purposes3

So, ‘disciplined eclecticism’, then, is the approach of begging, borrowing and stealing ideas from as many sources as possible – other educational theorists, sure, but also artists and scientists and novelists and engineers – and combining them into makeshift but workable new tools to inquire into educational situations in ways that are well adapted to both the features of the situation and our educational purposes.

The ‘eclectism’ means we need to read very broadly4 and know a lot of possible approaches… but that could end up being messy and uncoordinated and unmanageable. That’s where the discipline comes in.

The term is used in two senses:

  1. Self-discipline: two or three frameworks, data sources, approaches or whatever can work well, maybe even four if you can juggle really well, but ten is going to be a mess for pretty much everyone
  2. The ‘discipline’ within which you’re working: the appropriate mix will be different in education than in psychology, and even different in science education than in second language education

I’ve thought about disciplined eclecticism as an approach to research, and written a few things about that, and I think I have some road still to cover – and probably a book or more still to write – on that topic. But it occurred to me that it’s actually also the approach I follow and advocate in teaching: don’t adopt one theory, one approach, one strategy. Instead, learn about a heap – expand your repertoire – and then choose the appropriate mix for this school, class, subject, time of day, your own personal style and all the other relevant variables.

Choosing the appropriate mix is both art and science, and – like prescribing drugs – it is not only the individual effects of each of the ‘treatments’ that needs to be considered but their possible interactions…

I’ve got lots more thinking and writing to do, and it’s probably still too diffuse as a ‘brand’ and a concept to slip my name up there with the Big Guys, but it’s definitely a concept I can get behind as representing some of what I’m here to share with the world.

  1. Conversations like this are some of the many, many reasons she’s awesome
  2. It’s just that the Greeks got really good at writing stuff down on less perishable media so we know more about what they thought
  3. Let alone ‘The Truth’ about them
  4. And ‘read’ here includes ‘listen to’ and ‘view’ and ‘play’ – there might be great tools in movies, songs and games

Science Stuff Teaching

Oxford Electric Bell

With thanks to my friend Gromit (Clive):

The world is enriched by oddities like this.


Some thoughts on education

Being a small compendium of past posts on teaching and things educational:

Teachers – Born or Made? (January 2005)

Ideas about Teaching/Learning/Research (October 2005)

Knowing, Learning and Teaching 1 – Knowing (November 2005)

Knowing, Learning and Teaching 2 – Learning (November 2005)

Knowing, Learning and Teaching 2a – Learning Again (November 2005)

Knowing, Learning and Teaching 3 – Teaching (November 2005)

What Beginning Teachers Need to Know and Be Able to Do (November 2005)

There are many right ways (July 2008)

Evidence-based Practice and Education (September 2008)

The Golden Mean in Education and Society (January 2009)

Hmm, bit of a time gap there in the middle, but I’m sure that’s plenty to be going on with. 😉

Bike Stuff Teaching

Distributed Awareness

As you may have noticed, there’s an unobtrusive category system with posts on this blog, that can be used to search for posts on particular topics. It’s not unusual for posts to have a couple of codes, and there are common combinations, like ‘Science’ and ‘Teaching’ (and, unfortunately, ‘Politics’ and ‘Religion’), that occur a fair bit. But today’s post is in the ‘Bike Stuff’ and ‘Teaching’ categories, which might not be unprecedented but is pretty unusual.

I talked in this post a couple of weeks ago about the state of ‘distributed awareness’ I enter when riding the bike (though that wasn’t really the focus of the post). But as I was talking to Mike, one of the PhD students I’m supervising, yesterday, I realised that the same kind of thing happens in the classroom.

Experienced teachers are not really looking at one specific thing in the classroom all the time, though they can focus in when necessary. Instead, they are in the same kind of ‘distributed awareness’ space, and that allows them to be aware of everything that’s going on in the classroom – even things they can’t directly see, via disturbances in the patterns – so that they can make in-the-moment professional judgements about what most urgently needs their attention.

It’s something that beginning teachers don’t have automatically, although like most things some have more natural talent and others have to work harder to develop it. Maybe I should do some research on motorcycling teachers and see whether they’re better at it!


The Golden Mean in Education and Society

I guess it really just sums up a lot of various stuff I’ve written about here in relation to education over the years, but it just struck me that the old Greek and Chinese notion of the Golden Mean.

This is the idea that the ideal is found somewhere in the middle, rather than at either extreme. I’m not sure I agree with it in relation to politics (no real surprises there, I guess), but in relation to the many, many debates within education, I think it makes a huge amount of sense. That is, do we dump all phonetic learning of language for a ‘whole language’ approach? Or dump all whole language and go fully phonetic? Do we dump all rote memorisation of times tables and focus on understanding, or vice versa? Do we focus on maintaining order in the school or on students’ self-concept and enjoyment of learning?

I think in pretty much every case the best answers are ‘both-and’ rather than ‘either-or’. They’re somewhere in the middle, with slight movement in either direction to cater for local contexts and individual differences.

This is an essentially conservative idea: the Golden Mean is much more likely to tend to continue the best features of a current society than to lead to revolution and the over-turning of the current order. But I think one of the ways in which our current society is out of balance is the strong emphasis since the 60s on revolution and radical change and on suspicion of authority and conservatism.

That’s not to deny that those who claim to be conservative but are anything but haven’t actually made radical changes in our form of life that have needed to be resisted and still do. Although the Golden Mean is conservative, it would resist radical approaches to capitalism as well, and maintain a balance, and would resist extreme nationalism and militarism.

The rapid rate of technological change is often presented as a rationale for requiring a rapid rate of social change, but the reverse argument could be made – in a situation of rapid change in one dimension of life, hanging on to some of the best elements of our current way of life can maintain some stability and provide a sanctuary from the relentless pace of change.

I dunno, maybe I’m just mellowing, getting conservative and looking at the current society and deciding it isn’t and wasn’t too bad as I get older. But an approach that seeks to balance the demands of productive markets and industries with the needs of citizens and protecting those who need it makes a lot of sense to me there too.


Recruiting, Training, Retaining and Rewarding the Best and Brightest

So, in no particular order, a bunch of suggestions for developing a teaching force to transform education in Queensland. As with the broader suggestions outlined yesterday, these are a suite and should be considered together. Many of those points from yesterday are also very relevant to the issue of attracting and retaining teachers, particularly the ones on class size, support for students with special needs and in relation to classroom behaviour, curricular stability and the massive reduction of paperwork.

Clearly, entry into teacher education courses is a matter of supply and demand: the much-lamented low entry scores1 are purely a result of relatively low demand for the courses, for a variety of reasons. Of course, in a simplistic world it would be possible to just change the entry scores by fiat, but all that would do is kill off the Schools and Faculties of Education and exacerbate the already critical and growing teacher shortage. The only long term solution to raising entry scores is making people want to study teaching and become teachers.

  1. No more of this non-permanent contract nonsense. We know that about half of all new teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years, but is that surprising when they are hired on one-year contracts with no job certainty? The frustration caused by this practice is enormous. There is also excellent research to show that teachers are much more effective both within themselves as teachers and in school communities when they stay for longer periods. So whatever it takes in terms of better Human Resource management to deal with maternity leaves and study leaves and other issues, it’s essential that beginning teachers are offered real, substantive jobs in schools, where they can put down some professional roots and start to build the relationships that are the key to teaching.
  2. Raise the profile and prestige of teaching as a career in the community. There are a number of facets of doing this, but having politicians avoid crapping on teachers from on high whenever it suits their short term political goals would be a nice start. If community leaders (which, heaven help us, include politicians) went out of their way to praise good teachers, to recognise the importance of education to the community and to honour the work teachers do, that would have a huge effect on students’ perceptions of the teaching profession and desire to enter it.
  3. Develop a really workable career progression path within the classroom. I don’t think salaries in absolute terms are such an important motivator – and they may be more important in changing community perceptions of the teaching profession than in actually retaining teachers – but most teaching career structures top out in terms of increments for training and experience at 10 years after graduation. That means that by age 35, with potentially 30 years left in the profession, most teachers are already at the top of the scale, with no financial incentive to undergo further education and training or to keep improving their practice. The only way to earn more is to move out of the classroom, so the ‘best and brightest’ we worked so hard to get in there move out. Keeping the best teachers in the classroom is crucial.
  4. Offer real incentives to teachers for postgraduate study. Returning to university to complete a Masters or PhD helps teachers to look at their practice in new ways, and refreshes their understanding of the issues, so incentives and support for further study can help retain and improve good teachers. Develop professional development Master of Education courses available to all teachers, for which they are given time off from teaching to study full time, and which lead to salary increases.
  5. Develop professional development (PD) programs that are planned, on-going, relevant and have an appropriate balance of theory and practice. Meet both the teachers’ perceived needs (what they know they need) and unperceived needs (what they need but don’t know about). Avoid PD that is only about the latest brainwave from the department or some paper-shuffling nonsense, and focus on the knowledge and skills – and their theoretical underpinnings – that teachers need in order to teach.
  6. Resist the dumbing down of the teaching profession. Many people, including some teachers, call for a very ‘practical’ teacher education program, by which they mean lots of content knowledge background and then simply putting teachers into existing schools to learn how to teach in an apprenticeship model. These same people tend to decry the role of theory. But that kind of teacher education leads only to the perpetuation of the existing models of teaching… and that’s what we’re trying to revolutionise. So teacher education programs need to be professional education programs that equip teachers with the theoretical knowledge to make informed judgements about their practice and the various issues they encounter. In addition, the ‘best and brightest’ students will be those who are interested in ideas and in discussing ideas.
  7. If students’ results must be used as a way of measuring teacher performance, then get sophisticated about it, not simplistic. I’ve talked briefly here before about ‘value-added’ measures of school performance, which measure the change in student results rather than the absolute value. That’s a much fairer way, and avoids punishing the students and teachers in poorer areas of the state simply for being poor. In relation to this:
  8. Find really sophisticated ways of measuring and understanding teacher performance. If teacher performance is really important, then we need to put in the money and other resources needed to measure it right. Student test results are one tiny facet, and rely on a wide variety of factors other than teacher skill. What about the teacher’s ability to develop really engaging learning experiences, to fire up the students and get them motivated and interested? What about the quality of the discussions in the classroom, or the number of labs and other important activities a teacher conducts? What about creative, thoughtful integration of ICTs in teaching, and links with other subjects? What about educating students to be good global citizens?2 To reward good performance we need to understand what good performance is and have really credible ways of measuring it.
  9. Develop credible paths for teachers to retrain for different levels of education and for different subject areas. Recognise that this is not simple. In particular, there is a shortage of secondary teachers in some fields, and an excess of primary teachers in the Brisbane area. While primary and secondary teaching are different callings with different talents, some primary teachers could be retrained for junior secondary school teaching in subject areas where they have strong backgrounds, freeing up trained secondary teachers for the shortage areas.
  10. Rather than a one year Graduate Diploma in Education for students with an existing degree, move to a two year Master of Teaching program. One year is too little time to develop as a teacher. The M.Teach. would not be the same as the research or coursework Master of Education, but would be a high level professional qualification, well informed with theory as well as with extensive practice teaching time across the two years.

No doubt there are plenty more, but this is probably enough to be going on with…

Oh, and find gags for the morons who keep telling everyone around them that teachers work 8:30-3:30, 40 weeks a year. 😉

  1. In some ways I’m less than convinced entry scores are a good measure anyway: teaching is as much about personality and attitude and approach to life as it is about ability to achieve at the highest levels academically, and there’s no test for that. Teachers need to be smart, but not necessarily geniuses. They need to be good people, and that’s a much higher standard.
  2. Some of these are probably seen as falling into the ‘woolly thinking, too PC, not the way it was when I were a lad’ basket, but if they’re properly understood it is actually these kinds of facets of good teaching that lead to high academic success.


Three Clarifications

In relation to yesterday’s post, three quick points:

  1. I’m definitely talking about a massive re-investment in education with massively more money spent. You can’t get to class sizes of 15 and all the support services I was talking about by carving up the same size pie differently. If Queensland is serious about education it needs to put its money where its mouth is in a very big way.
  2. The 13 points I listed are a linked suite, and don’t really make sense if you take them one by one. You can’t pick and choose just some elements and still have it meet the intended goals. In particular, adding the external exams but without the curricular stability1 and support and the ability for kids to repeat grades, and the kinds of changes for teachers to be outlined today, would actually make the situation worse rather than better. So please look at the set of proposals as a unit.
  3. Having said that, I also know that there are alternative approaches on some of the issues. I said, for example, that integration of kids with special needs in mainstream classes had been tried and failed. That’s not really true: the promise when it was proposed was always that these kids would be brought in with massive support, teacher aides, budgets for needed equipment, support for teachers with planning alternative activities and so on, but the reality was that the kids with special needs were simply dumped in mainstream classrooms and all the extra challenges dumped on already busy teachers. So rather than reverse the integration and put kids with special needs back in special classes and schools, trying out the integration properly, the way it was meant to be, with proper support, would be another very attractive approach.

  1. My Biology teacher education colleague Kim mentioned that science is moving so fast in biology that there needs to be some flexibility within my 10 year stable curriculum plan to allow the new science to be taught. I think that’s not too hard to achieve, even with a pretty clear and prescriptive syllabus. I also think that in Chemistry and Physics, although knowledge is developing fast, not a lot of that makes it into the school level curriculum. Maybe it should to a greater extent. I still think a clearer, more detailed, fixed syllabus for a longer period would yield better educational outcomes, but agree that addenda to just change specific content as science (and other fields) advance are a useful addition to the scheme.


A Few Modest Proposals1 On Education

So, if there exist problems in school education in Queensland2, what are some solutions? Here’s my short list, just off the top of my head, and without a lot of detail – I’m happy to explain any of the features in more detail if anyone asks.

  1. Rationalise the phases of schooling and lock them in, don’t keep fiddling around the edges. Prep/kindergarten would be an extension of early years child care, done in a different way and a different place from schooling, but with explicit learning goals. Then Grades 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12 would be separate phases, with appropriate teacher preparation programs for each phase.
  2. An external, externally marked exam at the end of each of these phases, focused on conceptual and higher-order thinking questions and basic skills rather than factual recall.3
  3. Opt out of the national curriculum framework as an essential precondition for being able to:
  4. Plan clear, detailed syllabus documents that specify in detail content to be taught and skills to be developed at each year level. Lock in the syllabus for the 10 year period 2010-2020 and don’t mess with it at all. Everyone in the system has certainty about what students need to know and be able to do at each level, and doesn’t have to redevelop programs every time the QSA sneezes.
  5. Reintroduce the possibility of students repeating a year of school if they are not performing at the appropriate level for that year but students who are repeating receive intensive remedial help and support both in their regular class with a teacher aide and in withdrawal classes to ensure that they ‘make it’ next year.
  6. Smaller class sizes – a maximum of 15 in a class in all age groups. Much more support from specialist teachers in learning support and from teacher aides or ‘associate teachers’.
  7. Increased staffing levels at all schools, both to reduce class sizes and to increase time within the school timetable for collaborative planning between teams of teachers. Reintroduction of support staff such as school nurses, counsellors, teacher-librarians, tech support, learning support teachers… so that classroom teachers can focus on teaching and be well supported.
  8. Dramatic reduction in levels of bureaucracy, red tape and paper-shuffling required of teachers: partly through the reforms to curriculum and assessment described above, and to the way we deal with students with special needs described below, and partly through added support staff to handle some of this non-teaching work in schools. Getting bureaucrats in the department to have to justify every single demand they make of teachers in this way to some independent authority would also have value.
  9. Reintroduction of ‘special schools’ (under whatever name) for students with extensive intellectual and behavioural difficulties. Integration of such students into regular classrooms has been tried, and found to reduce outcomes and support for both those students and the other students in the class. It also creates huge extra paperwork burdens on teachers.
  10. It’s probably not possible at this point in our history to reintroduce the cane or other forms of corporal punishment in our schools – and it was got rid of initially partly because it had been abused. But discipline needs teeth – the criticism that misbehaving kids are hamstringing education and there are no real consequences for them has merit. I suggest a withdrawal disciplinary classroom in each school, constantly staffed by the scariest and most skilled of the Deputy Principals, to which any student who disrupts learning is immediately sent without question or discussion. They stay there in silence until all their work is done and they are ready to apologise and be readmitted to their class. No appeals for parents are allowed – this is an internal school disciplinary matter.
  11. Extensive support for indigenous students and the most at-risk students, with remedial teaching and teacher aides and other forms of support, but also with compulsion to attend regularly and participate fully in the activities of the school. Socioeconomic status is probably the single strongest indicator of academic performance, and all these initiatives aside, probably explains much of Queensland’s lag on the tests. If we’re serious about doing better, we have to get serious about poverty.
  12. Dramatically reduced emphasis on literacy and numeracy as decontextualised skills, and increased emphasis on developing literacy and numeracy integrated across all school subjects. Requirement for all students at all levels of schooling to read one age-appropriate (or above) book per month at home and report on it to the school. Parents accountable for ensuring that this happens.
  13. Reintroduced drill and practice on times tables and other basic mathematical skills – calculators aren’t the villains here, but there’s no substitute for having that stuff available at the top of your mind for everyday numeracy.

Some of these ideas take us back to older practices, some forward to newer ones, and many have never really been tried. But they’re drawn from experience of what works and from international experiences, including those in places like Finland that do very well.

These initiatives would involve large amounts of new funding into the system, but would not dramatically increase teachers’ salaries: they could continue to increase in line with salaries in other industries. What it would do is increase teachers’ job satisfaction and autonomy, and their ability to do the thing they got into the profession for in the first place – teach students and help them learn and develop – rather than mire them in behaviour management and endless bureaucracy that doesn’t directly serve students.

Oh yeah, all ideas expressed here are my own, and do not reflect the ideas or policies of the University of Queensland, the School of Education or my dog Buffy.

There will be another post here tomorrow focusing more directly on recruiting, retaining and rewarding the ‘best and brightest’ in the teaching profession, and on ways to deal with underperforming teachers and schools.

Reactions? Counterproposals?

  1. The original title is from Jonathan Swift’s satirical pamphlet suggesting the Irish poor eat their children as a solution to poverty. I think there are some resonances with the situation in education…
  2. As I said in yesterday’s post, I don’t think that’s necessarily so, but let’s assume it for the purpose of the discussion.
  3. In some ways this is the most controversial and counter-trend proposal of all, but it helps to ensure that all students are ‘on the same page’, addresses the perceived problems with Queensland’s performance on international tests and reduces the time burden on teachers of moderating internal assessment


Blame the teachers?

The response from our state Education Minister, Rod Welford, to Queensland’s relatively poor performance on the TIMSS international tests of school students’ ability to do international tests was to blame the teachers.

The article is worth a read, but the 188 comments, if you have the stomach and time, provide a fascinating over-view of the range of attitudes to and about education in this state.

I notice us ‘academics’ get a bit of a bashing – shame many of us actually agree with many of the points being made about the curriculum and particularly the massive excess of unproductive paperwork required from teachers.

It is important to notice that the ‘crisis’ itself is largely bogus. When results are corrected for socio-economic status, which is the largest predictor of academic success, Queensland students perform at a strong average standard… and they know and can do things that students who do better on the tests don’t and can’t.