May 06, 2013

5 days of School

I've relaxed for four months, and certainly cultivated bad habits of waking up late and sleeping late as well. The past 5 years of waking up at 6am has faded away from my mind, when I could be enthusiastic and so awake for my classes that my students often asked me the reasons for my perpetual energy in class. So I realised how lazy I had become when I had to wake up at 6am for the past 5 days (Mon to Fri). Mon and Tue were spent volunteering for 2 hours each day at School W, and I had not realised that I missed teaching so much until I sat down in front of two girls and was told to teach them "integration by parts". I thought my role was more of a remedial/revision tutor, but apparently I was brought in to teach the concepts which had not been taught before. The teacher, another volunteer and I sat down at three tables with 7 to 8 students (A level class sizes are so small here) and taught them integration.

I am keen to apply the formative practices I've learnt, and after going through the idea of integration by parts and demonstration of one example, I asked the students to do another example by themselves, and did not answer them straightaway if they were stumped. The "wait time" strategy does work to communicate to students that they shouldn't do random guessing but think before they move on to the next step. I also did not answer even after they obtained the correct answer, and made sure that they were very sure of their own working and checking after which I told them that they were correct. I certainly do think that we can do much more to improve on questioning skills to promote more learner autonomy and reliance on teachers' judgement. On Tuesday, I revised Normal distribution with three boys. It is certainly different from Singapore because they do not have graphic calculators and used a z-table that looks different from the one that I used for A levels when I was 18! The questions were quite routine, but I was quite sure that at least 2 of the boys managed to understand most of what was required. However, they required more help than the two girls I taught on the first day.

Another interesting thing is that since the students are taught modularly (Core maths, statistics, mechanics, decision), they could be doing several chapters in one week.

On Wed to Fri I went to School S in Coventry city centre, and was totally amazed by the excellent facilities. Since I went there from 8.30 to 3.30 each day I was able to make more than 10 lesson observations, followed tutors to their pastoral care sessions, staff meetings, and chatted with them in the lounge. The head mathematics teacher allowed me to do a pitch to the teachers requesting for help in my dissertation project, and I am very glad that at least 3 have responded. In fact, I am glad that they treated me just like a staff member, not minding my very intrusive lesson observations and chatting with me and showing me their marking, etc. I have often wondered if Singapore teachers would be so willing to let an education student go into their classrooms.

I probably will be extremely busy in the next two months planning and acting on my plans for my dissertation, and writing two more assignments. I am glad to have received excellent feedback (and a good grade! yay) for my first assignment, and just submitted another today. However, I am also looking forward to 2 more trips this month, one to London and another to Cardiff.

May 05, 2013

Deliberate Practice

After the last entry aside from two module presentations (of which I was pretty nervous due to peer assessment and strangely after teaching for 5 years I am still not very confident in front of other people - except perhaps when I'm talking about math) and 2 trips with friends to Manchester and Oxford, nothing much really happened in the one month. While busy writing my assignments and doing my readings, I also realised that I'm quite used to my current lifestyle, just that the lack of interaction with others made me reflect on how I like communication despite my self-perceived awkwardness when dealing with others.

End of April was when things began to get exciting. After a stressful yet quick presentation on Monday 22nd, I went to a nearby secondary school (School W) on Tuesday with a 2nd year undergraduate in Mathematics to meet with a teacher there to discuss our volunteering duties. We were told that we would be able to know more about our duties and possibly given a school tour. However, the discussion with the teacher lasted a mere 5 minutes after waiting for 35 minutes and a 20 minute walk to the school, just to discuss the schedule which we were to follow for volunteering. Anyway, the other volunteer happened to be a Malaysian and I had a good chat with him about Mathematics, education and KL.

Since the inaugural postgraduate conference was on 27th I went to help out with the preparation on 24th since I am part of the organising team and there were lots to do such as preparation of folders, name tags, programme, etc. On the 27th we arrived at the lecture theatre early, and aside from the book launch it was the second time I had seen so many faculty members and peers at WIE. I enjoyed being part of the organising team, especially since we were given a splendid looking blue pullover! I was particularly interested in the keynote speaker (Prof Chris Husbands of IOE)'s talk because he mentioned "teach less, learn more", and his talk on deliberate practice.

I have never thought much about when I would become an "expert" teacher. I thought that it would be a gradual thing, obtained after years of accumulation of experience. Education is a broad field, and even after 5 years I still do think I am a novice. Apparently research says that there are many characteristics that distinguish an expert from a novice, and experience do feature highly, but it "does not guarantee high levels of competence". Schon talks about "reflection-in-action" which means professionals sees, interacts and solves problems as they occur. Ericsson talks about "deliberate practice" as relevant activities to performance and require much motivation to maintain, like practising piano scales. Dunn and Shriner discussed what is "deliberate practice" for teachers, and they include preparation of materials for instruction, mentally planning instructional strategies and activities, evaluating student progress, etc.. It is interesting to note that "deliberate practice" while crucial, may not be enjoyable. I have never thought before that my frequent nagging "Practice! You need to drill more." to my students could be applied to myself. The environment of teaching is a difficult one to gauge whether one is doing effective teaching, as one is never clear when high standards of teaching has been attained. "Deliberate practice" also entails the acquirement of new knowledge, and should not conjure up the images of repetitive motor skills, but being reflective and mindful of what we are doing as we teach. I guess if we are all committed to doing the best we can, and be reflective about our actions whether in-action or on-action, followed by the willingness to change if what we are doing is wrong, then we can't be very far from the path of being a "good teacher".

March 15, 2013

School Visits – some more thoughts

After my first visit to the Early Years Centre where I learnt about PSED, and later attended the first meeting for organisation of the inaugural Postgraduate conference as well as consulting my supervisor with regards to my dissertation and modules, my third week of March (after Mothering Day on 10th March -> it is not the same day as in my home country) was also busy with two school visits and preparation for my modules/presentations.

Despite the heavy snow we went to a Nursery on Monday and the headmistress showed us around the nursery. Security was more strict in this school for we were asked for our CRB and pictures of the school building had to be taken using the school camera. There was provision for SEN children (there were a few with more severe disabilities) and two main classrooms for student learning, as well as an outdoor area. While the children played I noticed that the teachers were making notes and assessing students' ability to follow instructions, and there was a music specialist who encouraged students to play with instruments and sing along. The teachers informed me that because the parents would be attending next week, that's why they were a little more focused on gathering evidence of students' learning (assessments) more than usual.

What was surprising was the level of awareness in the children. While some played and learnt without consciously knowing that they were assessed, there were other children (in particular, a 4 yr old girl with 3 older brothers and 1 younger sister) who were aware of what they were assessed. This child did her tasks amazingly well and did not dwell upon them after the assessments were done (such as taking a picture of her walking down steps one foot at a time), and even tidied and cleaned up areas in a methodical manner. The teachers also showed us 'Learning Journey's of the children, which were thick files containing students' work as well as teachers' assessments. To allow students awareness of their achievements (success criteria), teachers would talk to the students "You did your numbers and wrote them out well! You were able to draw circles, weren't you?" and gave the students stars next to each statement which the students had achieved. (The teachers wrote month/year of each achievement) On one hand I am amazed by how these were communicated to the students, on the other hand I wondered if it was a ticklist that the teachers followed and wondered at how strictly they followed the checklist, and whether the students were really aware of their own learning gains.

I did not agree with one aspect of what I observed. Many children wrote their names wrongly, either letter reversals or mirror writing. These are signs of dyslexia (although I have limited knowledge in this area) and I thought maybe the teachers should try and correct these children while they were learning, because it did not look as if the children had disorders, it was more of not knowing what is "correct". I asked one teacher, and she said that writing properly would be rectified later, now it was more important that they could make "marks", or letters that "look" like their names. In my opinion, shouldn't the "correct" way be taught right from the beginning instead of letting children write in whatever way they wish and then be corrected at a later stage?

The teachers were kind enough to show us their assessment files and talked about how there were targets for different ages of learning, and the three levels for each age group: "Emerging, Enhanced, Established" as progression levels. We also played with the children (in the snow!). I encountered a boy with disorders (I'm not sure which) and he had temper tantrums, screamed and yelled, and would not listen to instructions. While I interacted with him minimally, I was really at a loss of how to communicate with him and was afraid he would hurt himself. This really highlighted to me the importance of teacher training when teaching SEN children.

On Tuesday I visited the secondary school in Leamington and it was my second visit there. Although I did not inform them prior to my visit (which I should have, but I did not have their email addresses), they were kind and accommodated to my request for observing a Mathematics lesson, though the Mathematics teacher showed a little annoyance (Her comment to her class "I don't know what we did to deserve so many visitors!"). The Year 7 class was generally well behaved although there were short episodes of the teacher having to shout at them to keep quiet. They learnt about surface area of cuboids, and the lesson was supposed to be more exploratory, by asking the children to draw nets and figure out the lengths along rectangles of the net when only 3 lengths were given. There were a small number of students who did not understand the question asking for area and tried to find perimeter instead. Also, although the teacher wrote "2 x l x w" for the two rectangles of the same area in the net, it was not clear to the students for many continued to just sum the surface areas of the six sides. The teacher and students managed to cover two similar problems in a 50 minute period, and I felt time could have been better utilised, because

1) the teacher did 80% of the talking, most students simply copied down what she said, and more effort was spent on drawing of the rectangles/net by the students than any mathematical thinking of finding the surface area. While there is learning to be obtained by being able to view a 3D object and visualising the net, this could be better demonstrated by the teacher by cutting out a shoebox (instead of just showing a shoebox and running hands over each surface).

2) I think there was too much time spent on distribution of books, behavioural correction, and the teacher was not able to go around to look at the mistakes and give feedback. It was also clear that although she asked many students for answers there were only a few whom she focused on and they gave correct answers, and she moved on once the correct answer was achieved. Students did question her about an alternative method, but she did not elaborate on it. Her working on the board was too quick for students to see the process, and she erased the working after the first problem, which I thought could have been used to explain the second (so that the students can see the similarities in the two problems). Many students also made calculation errors in their books, which I think the teacher did not notice.

Although I feel my critisicm may not have been warranted, again because I did not know the classroom context (prior engagement of teacher and students), I wonder if other observers would agree with what I've said.

There were four other lessons I observed, with the last being the most interesting. The History and English teachers gave interesting lessons and made efforts to talk to us and explain about their classroom assessments, which I am grateful for. The last lesson was a Year 13 class on Sociology, and I was amazed by how the section on Education is similar to some of the theories I am currently learning. The teacher also demonstrated how she wanted students to work out success criteria for doing well, and by looking at what the markers wanted to see in scripts. (Her quote "It's like a game you have to know what the other party is expecting to see") She told us of obvious improvements in grades when students worked out success criteria and also use A to Z to revise/recap on things they have learnt in previous topics. I thought that this teacher is particularly successful in her range of techniques and the supportive role she obviously played in students' learning.

When we had the opportunity to talk to the teacher in charge of school visits (he is a geography teacher), we were able to discuss interesting issues such as "labelling" of children with SEN with relations to funding gains and whether the existence of TAs for these children might be detrimental (because the TAs did writing for children and gave them special attention, where in the absence of such assistance would it be better for the children?), and also how the performance of students impacted teachers' performance, and the teacher said "In this country, if students don't do well, it's the teachers' fault. The responsibility lies solely on the teachers, and not other factors such as the students themselves, family, environment, etc. Teachers are to blame if the students don't achieve their target grades". This was particularly telling and thought provoking, because teachers are held accountable to such an extent that they might just "teach to the test" so that their students would learn for grades and not for the sake of learning. This view is clearly different compared to what Black and Wiliam said in their paper "Developing the theory of FA" where they said that like partnership law, student and teacher are "jointly and severally liable". Using the framework that Black and Wiliam suggest in Fig 1 of this paper, I think in the classrooms I've observed, the teachers do 1)"Clarifying learning intentions and success criteria" very well, 2) & 3) & 4) to a moderate extent (ellicit evidence of students' understanding, provide feedback, peer assessment) and 5)"self assessment" to a small extent.

Peer assessment is another area I've observed. In a Year 7 Opening Minds lesson, students did peer assessments of each others' presentation skills by giving marks (out of 5) of different aspects of presentation skills, and they even wrote comments, but then there was not much difference in their marks and comments between groups. Although they were aware of the areas to be improved they also did not act upon it. (Such as one group commenting on another group that they should make eye contact, be louder as they present, not look at their presentation material al the time, but when this group presented they made the same mistakes) However, in the Year 9 History lesson, the teacher told me that the students made peer assessments and they gave quite accurate assessments of each others' abilities, and similarly in the Year 13 Sociology lesson, where the teacher said they did peer marking, and the teacher remarked some of the work, and the results were similar. More importantly, the teacher spent lessons on giving feedback and had the students look and think through the comments given by both peers and teachers.

I think I gained a lot by observing lessons, though if others were to observe my lessons I think I might gain more, or realise that I make a lot of mistakes or have a lot of improvements to make with regards to my own teaching style and habits. It is clearly not easy to make changes to the way we teach even if we are aware of the theories or how certain methods should be favoured because of grounding in research. Change in teaching is difficult, but I am fond of this sentence which I read in Brookhart and Bronowicz's paper "I don't like writing. It makes my fingers hurt. Students talk about their classroom assessments" that "Teachers who think they can make a difference, in fact, do - apparently using their assessment practices in the process". In my opinion, although I agree that teachers and students share equal responsibility in learning, yet in classroom assessments environment teachers play an important role of control, even in guiding students' towards self/peer assessment/better self-efficacy, etc. We also judge and give feedback to students in letting them know what is right/wrong, and in teaching students' to judge their own work and learning, we are still judging these processes.

March 05, 2013

School Visit to Early Years Centre

We were given the opportunity to visit an Early Years Centre yesterday, where the children were of 3 - 4 years of age. Aside from being attracted to the adorableness of the little children, I was also quite amazed by the curriculum because children were given so much freedom in choosing what they would like to play with. In the large classroom, there were areas where teachers were telling stories, math areas where there were numbers and coloured blocks, areas where they could do role-play (with a mock cave and camp area), areas where they could play with sand/water, do paintings or stick bright objects with glue. There were also outdoor areas for children to exercise and explore, with little bicycles with training wheels, obstacle courses (very simple ones), etc. It was great to see the children enjoying these activities and moving from one "station" to the next, and very independently putting on aprons before doing their paintings, washing their hands, and cleaning up the messes they made.

It was also intriguing to note that when there were group sessions where all the children listened to stories read aloud by teachers, the teachers mixed rhymes and counting into the story-telling, and even in the distribution of cheese the students could say "cut that into half", "not enough", and count up to fourteen. The assessment activities employed by the teachers in all these activities and the template they showed us with regards to the levels of attainment such as "able to listen to the teacher", "able to interact with others", "able to say "No" to the teacher", were very informative. The teachers also noted how crucial this formation stage of students' learning was, and hoped that their efforts in noting down the students' progress would be noted by the primary school teachers. Which brings to mind how important it is to track a child's progress by looking at prior attainment. I think most students go from different stages of their learning with teachers hardly noticing what they have learnt or attained before and begin their assessment anew based on their own observations, and students' attainments are often reduced to a number, say 260 for PSLE, L1R5 6 pointer, A level 4As, etc, but the summative data really doesn't show how the child has developed. I was also introduced to PSED (personal social emotional development) in early years, and it has been mentioned by one of my coursemates how this is not focused on in primary or secondary education, even though it is clear that it is important for holistic development. There is strong focus in cognitive development from primary onwards to tertiary, although we have been trying to bring forth civics/moral/character development in recent years.

February 17, 2013

An extremely busy week – some reflections

It's Chinese New year week! Yet I've had an extremely busy but fulfilling time, not visiting relatives or eating New Year pastries, but immersing in knowledge-collation of education-related issues. Firstly, last Saturday 9th, I went for the 2nd session of the module Issues in Assessment, and my class was very enthusiastic in discussing the online assessment tools as well as assessment for diverse needs. Despite the wealth of information which I will need to plough through (I haven't done any follow up work since I've been so busy this week) I came away immensely satisfied by all the new things I've learnt from my peers and tutor. As of today I am still considering a title for my assignment, because my initial plunge was to choose breadth and depth in senior secondary education, which I am greatly interested in, but I think it would be a very difficult topic to write about after a cursory glance at the few references I managed to find. On the other hand, I am also interested in online assessment methods, so I might just steer my wheel towards this.

On Tuesday, I attended a 3hr course on introduction to critical thinking. It was quite useful, but not spectacularly so, because in some sense it reminded me of the coaching I had to do for Future Problem Solving Programme. We start with questioning and challenge, and continued with logic and arguments. I think I've learnt to be more evaluative and critical of my own writing, but at the same time the threshold for excellent writing that I've constructed in my mind gets higher and higher, and I am a little daunted by that.

Wednesday I received some suggestions from my personal tutor, and she gave me some excellent advice as well. On thursday I visited a primary school near Coventry. This visit was certainly quite different from the one I went earlier. This visit wasn't as well-structured as the first one, but nevertheless the casualness of the visit also lent great support, because I didn't feel as if I need to be constrained by my role as a visitor. The deputy headmaster very kindly gave us two hours of his time and answered many questions, not only about his school but in general about the UK education system, and he showed us the technology harnessed to help him in data collection (mostly assessments) of every individual student, and how it was possible to track all the websites that the children/staff could access in school. He also told us about teacher standards in UK, which was a long list involving minimum requirements that each teacher should uphold, not only on personal conduct, but also on teaching, other responsibilities, assessment, etc. I was absolutely bowled over by the seemingly high level of standards that every teacher must have. He also gave us a tour of the facilities, and I must say that technology is rather prevalent in UK classrooms. There was also no lack of teaching assistants or parent helpers, and as there were many students from minority groups we saw that they were given extra assistance in groups of five to six.

Subsequently we were led to a few classrooms and allowed to stay with that class for about 4 periods, with a lunch break in between. I went to a Year 6 class, and sat with them through literacy, numeracy and ICT periods. It was amazing to learn that a primary level teacher will have to be able to teach all subjects, including the above-mentioned, coupled with history, science, geography, etc. The lady teacher introduced me to her class as the A level math teacher 'whom we must impress today, okay?' (after the deputy headmaster told her of my job). Not surprisingly, one of the more curious boys asked her 'why isn't she teaching us then?', and the teacher ignored his question. (As I was next to this boy I whispered to him that the reason was because I didn't know them, and he nodded solemnly)

In the literacy class they were doing comprehension on a comic strip depicting King Midas. I was quite skeptical of the way it was conducted, because every question had 1 or 2 marks tied to it, and the teacher was refering to an answer scheme which she consulted now and then, while telling students that if you do "this...", you get 1 mark, if you do "that...." you get 2 marks. Although she fielded questions from the students, she also expressed frustration because some students clearly did not listen to her and continued asking what she had just said. It did not seem to me a good way to get understanding across of why an answer was not acceptable, and the students also did not give very many outstanding answers.

In numeracy the teacher gave them a mental sums quiz, by saying questions aloud twice, and the students would write their answers down. They seemed well-trained in this, for the students immediately started drawing lines in their books and enumerating the question numbers. At Year 11, the questions were quite simple in my opinion, for example, 20x30x40 =?, one third of a number is 12, what is the number? However, there were still quite a lot of mistakes, for this was supposed to be a revision quiz. At this I thought that the teacher gave rather good guidance in moving the students towards the answers, and not just telling them the answers. Her prompts were very reasonable in my opinion. Later they proceeded to revising pie charts, and I was also able to chip in and help students in understanding that 12.5% = 1/8. What I was not quite comfortable with in this part of the lesson was that the students were told to estimate the area of the sectors in a pie chart, and by "eye power" they were to "see" that approx 1/7 of those surveyed liked a particular item, because it was slightly larger than an eighth. Although the teacher taught the students to "estimate" by cutting the circle into quadrants and eighths, I was not quite satisfied with the estimation method.

ICT was also rather interesting, for the students were allowed to use laptops (2 students to 1 laptop) which came in a portable cabinet so that it could be conveyed between classes. The students were to make a poster on anti cyber bullying. The teacher demonstrated some concepts and showed them a video, to which the students enthusiastically responded by giving examples. Later I went to a Year 1 class of 30 to 35 five year olds, and they were so adorable that I had the passing inclination to teach in primary instead of secondary. I was amazed to see the wide range of ability in the students, and also by how difficult it was to teach them. They were grouped into four sets, with one set being able to write long sentences such as (the further I am away from a sound, the fainter it becomes), to another set who could not even spell or fill in blanks with words such as "quiet". Yet I also had the inkling that it was a matter of whether the students could focus, or if some were already labeled as SEN students. Occasionally the teacher and her assistant had to raise their voices somewhat, to which they explained to us was necessary. (They also used a tambourine to get the attention of the students)

After class, the students gathered around us (the visitors) and requested that we put on their jackets and zip up for them. As I kneeled down to converse with the students, these little children were not shy or awkward at all, with many trying to get my attention "what's your name?" or even pulling my hair. Struck by amazement of these very curious children, I wondered if back at home, would cultural differences emerge even at primary level (nursery really), whereby students in Singapore would not be so forthcoming with strangers?

On Friday I went for a book launch at my department, and was happy to see many members of the faculty and hear them talk about their books as well as factors to consider when publishing papers in journals. I bought a few books and also met quite a few of my peers. Lastly, before I end this long entry, I must say that I find my second session on learning about academic writing yesterday (10 to 5pm on Saturday) was more satisfactory than Tuesday, because the tutors broke down the different aspects of writing, and gave very specific and relevant tips. I liked the handouts, lectures and peer discussions with the example paragraphs, introductions and conclusions, and the detailed explanations by the tutors. I really feel that it has been made clearer to me what are the expectations for academic writing at Masters level. That said, now I feel that the introduction I wrote for my assignment is absolutely shoddy and not up to standard. So I must shove the thoughts of going for UK trips away from my mind and concentrate on assignment writing and literature reviews in the coming weeks!

January 30, 2013

Less predictable questions in examinations

I've read this from Gordon Stobart's "Testing Times" which I am very much in agreement with. He starts with "The suggestion that an examination should include unfamiliar questions, so that students have to rely on their understanding in order to fashion an answer" which sounds like an idealistic scenario but realistically difficult to implement method. He suggests that we go from "When you see..." to "What if ..." preparation during classes, as this will encourage more problem-based and active learning, and successful transfer of learning plus more cognitive work. Of course this would mean more time preparing lessons, and not just going through questions in class. Clearly, not just in examinations, but also during tutorial classes, if we were to use "new situations" or a varied approach, it will definitely be necessary for students to use their knowledge and apply it to any unseen problems. Scaffolding by the teacher or group work would be essential, coupled with misconceptions that may occur so that the teacher can provide immediate feedback, which may not revealed when doing "routine" problems, or problems that the students have seen before.

Once it is clear to the learner that problems posed in class or internal examinations do not mimic the external tests but focus very much on the understanding of the concepts, they will not rely so heavily on knowing the "algorithmic" method, that is, the prescribed method or cue-spotting or recall of prepared answers. Furthermore, I believe it will cultivate flexibility and creativity in thinking. While it is important for students to know the format and type of questions in preparation of any high-stakes external examination, spending a long time (for example, 1 to 2 years) preparing and teaching to the tests constrains teaching and learning.

I am not saying that the current way we teach or set examinations will need to be radically changed. Any dramatic or big changes in education will have bad consequences in my opinion, since there are many stakeholders and it takes time for majority to accept or embrace changes. Also, it will take time to observe if changes are positive or effective. It is my personal opinion that the Singapore A level examination papers in my subject has been making small steps towards setting questions that are non-routine, and this has caused the feel of the papers to be more experimental. I think it is a good move, provided that the assessment remain valid, and that the mark schemes (I can't tell how the mark schemes are crafted as they are externally written and marked) allow flexibility, meaning that candidates are allowed to arrive at a solution in a variety of ways.

It is also interesting to note that as I read literature on examiners' setting of standards and reliability of marking that A levels are marked thus: firstly examiners will be presented with a mark scheme and they would participate in standardisation meetings. Since the marks are given based on fulfilment of skills shown, this seems to me criterion referencing. However, later examiners would determine the grade boundary mark according to statistics and code of practice. This would seem to me as norm-referencing since there is a certain percentage of students who will fail. As the difficulty of the papers would vary from year to year, there is no doubt that the grade boundary mark would vary as well. Does this mean that all of the mark boundaries would change? So that it is no longer a fixed (70 and above is A, 60 to 69 is B, 55 to 59 is C, etc) but a varied one such as 69 and above A, 61 to 68 B, 54 to 60 C, etc? This idea is totally different compared to moderation, which means adding a certain x marks to every script.

I presume, and I hope, that external examiners are experienced so as to write/mark/assess papers so that they are valid and reliable. In internal school examinations which teachers set so as to prepare students for these external examinations, how should they be set? The expertise of teachers vary greatly, within a department, or in a school, or across the country. It is often a struggle to adjust marking so as to ensure a suitable percentage of students pass when teachers try not to use norm-referencing, as they want to focus on students attaining skills. Yet there are scenarios when examinations are set and moderation prohibited, and alarming results such as less than 1% A and 60% failures ensue. Does this mean that the paper was not set fairly or the marking too severe? Setting of examinations is definitely a complex process, including setting valid questions that encourages the very skills the exam will measure, having a fair mark scheme, knowledge of the syllabus and students' achievement levels and teachers' expectations, coupled with some precognition of how the students might fare and whether the distribution would sit nicely on the fixed grading scheme (aa mark for A, bb mark for B, cc mark for C, etc). Since they are school examinations and scripts are returned to students with the marking and feedback shown so as to encourage improvement, school examinations have the added burden of being accountable and transparent, to students and parents, furthermore, with close scrutiny by other schools and even tuition centres, which brings in reputability and also immortality of questions (whether they are useful in the future).

Thus with such high stakes, it is no surprise that some teachers are unwiling to be more adventurous and creative with their problem-setting. Furthermore, if a question has been used in a past year paper (external), then this gives the question more credibility and validity. Unfortunately, I feel that this does not have a good washback effect, for students would just focus on drilling and completing more past year questions, and not focus on what they should really be learning and understanding core/principle concepts. How should we encourage fellow teachers to try their hand at more non-routine questions?

On the bright side, tests and examinations are not the sole purpose of teaching. Although summative assessment is important and take place periodically, it is really the teaching done in classroom and interaction with students that is important. For how else can we overcome students' fear of examinations by giving them a strong foundation and encouraging them to learn? Only by improving our own teaching will students refer to their teachers for guidance, and not the many private tutors they have. (Not that I have anything against private tutors, but the lack of regulation, teaching to the test and sometimes outdated teaching may cause more harm than gain for learners)

January 25, 2013

School Visit Years 7 – 13

I had an extremely enriching experience when visiting a school in Warwickshire today, not only because it was my first school visit, but also because first-hand experience plus communication with teachers and students is a much better way to learn than from reading literature or books. Just when I was still being not too sure of what Key Stages were and how special education needs students were taught together with the mainstream students and not in a separate school, all these were cleared up by the assistant headteacher and International relations teacher who spoke to us at length. I am definitely appreciative of the 4 lesson observations I attended, and there are many thoughts about these lessons that I would like to chew on.

Firstly, this school is new, only 3 years old, and the architecture looks very modern. The facilities are plentiful and they had state-of-the-art equipment, whether it was in the food tech, laboratories, engineering labs with drills, ICT rooms, music recording rooms, dance/drama studios, etc, or the hand-held wireless keyboards that were in every class and all the teachers had great familarity with, I was quite amazed by the screening of movies in a "cinema" (it's more like an amphitheatre I think) as the students (Year 7, 12 yrs old) led us around the school. It felt like an art/tech/design school, but in actual fact they offer many subjects at both GCSE and A levels. The enrolment is not high, around 250 for each year. What was interesting about their college (house) system was that they had 'vertical tutoring', which meant that about 5 from every year were banded into a group to interact with every morning. It is certainly an effective way to encourage bonding among the older and younger students, and it seems that the older students felt more responsible and would look out for the younger ones.

The first lesson was with a class of Year 7s, called Opening Minds Lesson. It was a general class, meant to encourage visual learning, creativity, communication, etc. In layman terms, the students were not to do much writing in this class but learnt about world events through projects, role play, etc. The lesson I observed was on the Black Death. Students were grouped in fives or sixes, and told to think in a manner befitting people 700 years ago, and given descriptions of roles they were to envision themselves as. I was grouped with 4 girls and a boy, and the group was a very focused one, for they were not surprised by my presence at all, and just treated me as if I was a student too. Furthermore, they didn't ask me any questions until at the end of the lesson when I introduced myself as a Mathematics teacher in Singapore who is now a student at Warwick. During the lesson, the teacher gave worksheets to the class on some decisions that each student would have to make in his/her role, and take votes in each group. What was surprising to me was the number of raised hands for each question the teacher asked, and how thoughtful some of the responses were. The teacher gave them time to think, and did not hurry the students as they answered. Furthermore, he affirmed each good answer with comments. Midway through this lesson, a boy who was disturbing the class was sent out of the classroom, but the teacher left the classroom (After giving the class work to do) to speak with this boy (most likely on his misbehaviour) and then both of them came back into class.

The second class was not very fruitful for me for it was a dance lesson where a trio was practising their routine as part of the A levels, and the teacher certainly gave them a lot of feedback and the students were also asked to think of their own performance and reflect upon what they need to improve on while watching a video of their own recorded practice. However as I am not proficient in dance I was not able to pick on much nuances or learning points in the teacher-student interactions. It was however, clear to me that the teacher had excellent relationships with the Year 12 students and the lesson seemed very productive in my opinion.

The next lesson was certainly very interesting for it was a Year 9 mathematics class. The students were sitting in pairs and the teacher allocated me to a seat next to a girl who came in rather late. It was a lesson on probability, and the teacher showed a question on the screen. It seemed to be a rather involved question for 13-14 Year olds, with the teacher talking about sample space, tree diagram, and independent events. However the teacher did not do much definitions, perhaps he had covered them in a previous class, and the students were given time to work on the problem. As I observed the class, I realised this must not be a very high-ability group, for about half the class were distracted or simply did not know what to do. Also, I thought that the question could be phrased more precisely, because the question was "rolling of two 4 sided dice", and this did not necessarily mean that the 4 sides had to be numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4, but was then assumed by both teacher and students. Then again maybe the students would not need to read into the question so carefully at 14 yrs old.

Subsequently as the teacher explained the problem which continued with the idea of expectation of profits, he said that although the probability was 1/4 this does not mean that every time out of 100, 25 people will win. Which I thought was a good lead in, and he certainly asked why this was so, but then he scrawled "approx 25" on the board which did not make much sense to me. Certainly the child next to me did not understand what the teacher was trying to explain (she was winking and making faces with another girl). Later the teacher moved on to explanations of tree diagrams, and demonstrated two examples (one with a context of Mr Fluffy Bunny, which I thought was rather amusing). He did not explain why, but just stated "you have to multiply along the branches of the tree", and also did not explain why certain cases should be added. (For example getting a head in two coin tosses) Later he did not explain the "complement method" when the question was "at least one head in two coin tosses", neither did he stress on the wording of "at least", to clarify why there were 3 cases. He answered a lot of questions from the class, but also showed his annoyance when some of the students were disturbing each other. I thought that he showed a lot of patience too, but he looked rather frustrated as well.

Now the above seems to be a lot of my personal opinions of what the teacher should have done, but I must say that I make the above without knowledge of the students' abilities, the teacher's expectation of the students, what they had done previously, and what they will be doing in future classes, neither do I know the syllabus. Hence I must say that I am making unfair judgements on the above observations. However, if I were to compare this teacher with the previous Year 7 teacher, this teacher's classroom was not as well managed as the previous one.

Lastly for this lesson, the teacher gave out books to each pair of students, these books containing drills/practices, and to my surprise, labelled as "B to E" grades. The teacher asked the students to do either page x or page y, because page x was for students who think they can do B questions and page y for students who think they can do C. This is certainly a form of self-evaluation/assessment, because students had to judge their own ability and make targets on their own. The mathematics ability of the students were slightly below where I thought they should be at, for there were quite a lot of them with difficulties in multiplication (a common mistake being 0.3 x 0.3 = 0.9) or reducing fractions. The students in the class definitely had varied abilities, and it was again tough on the teacher as he made his rounds in the class answering questions which were all quite similar. Although there was quite a lot of questioning and time for students to work on their questions, I thought that the usage of lesson time was not quite effective.

During lunch break we talked to a Geography teacher who kindly gave us one hour of his lunch time to interact with us and fielded many questions. When we commented on the student-centric lessons that we observed, he said that it is something they are proud of, but also enforced by government (Ofsted, I think), because a teacher should spend only 20% of the time speaking in front of the classroom. This is not possible in a lecture-tutorial system. At the same time, UK students are more likely to raise their opinions and questions, compared to Asian students. I commented as well on how the students and teachers did not mind our observations and seemed very used to having outsiders participating. This teacher then told us that the school has a collaborative and supportive environment where it is the norm for teachers to drop by each others' classes, or for the school to host external visitors. I think this is an excellent practice to have, for teachers to learn in each others' classrooms, and students not to feel pressurised when there are visitors. There are also TA (Teaching assistants) in some classrooms, or for SEN students.

Another observation was how teachers said in class that presenting their solutions or work or phrasing in a certain way would gain marks, and how the practice and drill questions were all from past year books/papers. I asked how the teachers would strike a balance between teaching to the test and actual learning or liking of the subject/content. Or how to teach students to obtain an actual understanding of concepts/content without having them "used to" routine problems but not able to do higher-order thinking questions. Obviously, there is no good answer to this question of finding the right balance.

In the last lesson I observed, it was a Year 12 class on English Literature with only 12 students (It was amazing how few students there were in Sixth Form classes, which certainly meant very dedicated teaching). The teacher asked each student to verbally say their argument or plan for their essays, and gave each one time to think. Most were quite serious, with a few who love to joke but knew when it was time to keep quiet. One boy's work seemed to be excellent, he commented quite lengthily on the futileness of war and bravery of the soldiers and the theme of death. There were however others who did not prepare at all. The second half of the lesson concluded with a movie screening and the teacher ended the lesson by stating clearly her expectations for the next lesson.

My visit was certainly fruitful, and there are some takeaways which I think might work, some which I think would be impossible to implement. Most of the students seem to love their school and lessons, with some saying "just ok" to me when it was clear they didn't like it. I must say that the relaxed atmosphere in classes and school is quite different compared with what I experienced back home, when comparing A level classes, although there were similar grumbles of how they didn't like examinations.

January 21, 2013

When setting questions for school exams…

The Diploma Disease is most contagious. Summative assessments shapes learning and teaching, despite teachers wanting to encourage learning for the sake of learning. In order to move beyond superficial and rote-learning, we try to craft 'higher-order thinking', 'non-routine', 'unseen' problems for students in examinations to test their 'actual' understanding and not just memorisation of solutions that they have seen before. Naturally, these questions are considered difficult. Truth to be told, they might not be, yet in examination conditions, the fear of the unknown, coupled with prior examinations or years of not having been tested thus, students do badly for such questions. Hence, there is a cap in each examination, of the number of such questions we can set, because it has been commented again and again that there is no use setting such questions if the students would not try them or do badly in them.

(This brings to mind this line from Perkins' which I read from a chapter by Margaret Carr: Intelligence in the wild includes the ability to recognize problems hidden in messy situations and the motivation and good sense to choose which problems (because they are always too many!) are worth the time and the energy it will take to solve them)

While some of us are racking our brains trying to come up with new and fresh ideas, finding middle ground so that questions satisfy the above requirements of being higher order yet within students' capability, at the other end, students/parents are complaining that questions are getting harder, and there are even tuition centres which open classes specially catered to customers (students) from my institution.

I think it is because the way we assess or teach has caused students to use strategic approaches to learning instead of a deep approach. In the book by Stobart, he listed this table by Entwistle et al containing approaches to learning and studying, which I thought perfectly fits the way students apply themselves at my institution. Here it is


Obviously, and I agree with the author, that students use a mixture of the above approaches, depending on the subject or task. Yet I suspect most of my students used the strategic approach, becuase who wouldn't want to get the best qualification that they can obtain? A few months after her A levels I asked my sister's opinion on a mathematics question I have crafted, and all she gave me was a blank stare. She asked me, "Do you expect me to remember that after exams?" My reaction was, "but you did so well! don't tell me you don't remember what you learnt!" Luckily, her reply was that she remembered course content that she was interested in, while for subjects that didn't catch her interest she used the strategic approach, that is, put in consistent effort and managed time to maximize her grades.

So back to my ruminations on question setting. So it is my suspicion that while we set 'higher order thinking' questions to test students' understanding and learning, learners using strategic and shallow approaches flounder. I suppose I need a lesson on how to set "higher order thinking' questions, from which the backwash has a positive impact on teaching and learning, yet not demolishing the confidence and self-esteem of students who aren't able to do such questions.

January 17, 2013

Traffic lights

I've been reading "Working inside the black box" and "Assessment for Learning: Putting it into Practice" by Black et al, and the term "traffic lights" often appears. It is a means to ask students about their take on their work/understanding, obviously, green for fine, yellow for some problems and red for having trouble. When I first read about this technique I thought it would not work, because firstly, I wondered if 17-18 year olds would feel that it is a childish way of showing their problems, especially if they were not trained in earlier years to use this method. Secondly, in a culture where failure is deemed as unacceptable would their pride allow them to use the yellows or reds? It would be highly likely for most to use green, and some to not use anything at all. In fact, I doubted whether the feedback would be honest from the students.

I suppose it boils down to my communication with the students, whether I have effectively informed them the usage of these "traffic lights". They need to realise that only through honest response can we move forward to explaining and discussing problems they encounter. In earlier years, I would be a "thorough" tutor as I covered all the questions in the tutorial set, and somewhere down the line I realised that even in a well-crafted question set meant to allow a teacher to build up concepts and understanding, there would be questions that a student could do independently on their own and I would not need to waste time in class discussing. Hence in more recent years, I would verbally run through some of the easier problems, or simply ask the students to shout out the question numbers for which they had difficulties.

This is similar to the "traffic light" technique, except that perhaps "shouting out" would mean that the more vocal students were heard, while those who are more shy or those who have not done their work would not respond and I would have missed their responses. So I now feel perhaps "traffic lights" would be a good method in that it is visually fast and effective for me to observe if majority of the class have problems or not. For example, I would say "Question 1", and the students would raise their cue cards with the appropriate colours of their understanding. Once the students are used to this method and have seen the effectiveness of it, I think they might not think of it as childish or useless.

In A Level tutorial classes for a specific period, a tutor would usually aim to cover four tutorial problems, for they are usually quite involved and may require ten minutes of explanation each. To adopt the practice of "traffic lights", I would first inform the class that I intend to go through these four questions, and at the beginning use the traffic lights to gather feedback whether the students have problems with these questions. The pairing or grouping of greens with the yellows would then allow students to help deal with problems, and I could in the meantime develop the question or give a variation of the question on the board so as to allow them to work on it. This would free up time for me to gather the reds to help them further along or explain concepts which they might not have understood. I would estimate that students require 20 to 25 minutes to discuss their problems and I would also have time to walk around the classroom to observe their progress, and at the end of students' discussion this would leave me with 15 minutes or more to talk about deeper understanding of the questions, thrash out common misconceptions, or perhaps do a summary of the topic.

This would definitely be more interactive and better than the current way most of us teach -- in front of the classroom. We do check for understanding in our questioning, or perhaps when we ask students to present their solutions on the board, but it is highly likely that students are often bored in tutorials, because when they have done their work or completed their understanding then what the teacher or peers are doing in the front of the classroom is just repetition for them. I used to feel this way in the classroom when I was a student, that the teacher was repeating content that I already knew, and to fulfill my role as a student I just had to listen, occasionally picking up tidbits which I have not learnt before, but majority of time in tutorials would be wasted. I remember that my tutor would be talking most of the time, and in reflection, I did do that too, talk in front of the classroom for majority of a period.

I think that in the case of a class with much varied ability the above technique would be a little more difficult, for I might need to spend more time (or even outside of the classroom) with the reds, and the greens might complete their discussion with the yellows much earlier. In this case I would think that using "What if..." questions would be a good way for the greens and yellows to engage in, because I would lead them to generate questions or think of how they might answer if some words in the question are changed. For example, in a Permutation and Combinations question, if the sentence "seating of ten people in two rows" is changed to "seating of ten people at two round tables", the discussion/method would change. Getting students to communicate their thinking and ideas would be an excellent way of improving mathematical discourse, and of course, with peers, students are generally more willing to say their thoughts than to a teacher.

What would be difficult on the part of the teacher would be to relinquish control in the classroom, to not have a roomful of well-behaved students to hang on to their every word, to allow students to discuss freely, and to understand that as teachers we might not have time to explain everything that the students have discussed. The students might feel that the teacher has not played his/her role well in explaining every question perfectly, but in the long run, I think the students might be better independent learners and would not rely on the spoon feeding that is quite common in our culture.

Another difficulty I forsee would be that when students are first not used to this idea, they might use their discussion time to chat about things not related to the lesson, or be distracted. I think this is unavoidable, what I would need to do is to make them understand that they have to be active participants in learning, if they choose not to discuss and learn when the oppportunity arises then it would be their folly.

January 14, 2013

Continuing on…

I agree in particular this passage from "Inside the Black Box" by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam

<Teachers will not take up attractive sounding ideas, albeit based on extensive research, if these are presented as general principles which leave entirely to them the task of translating them into everday practice - their classroom lives are too busy and too fragile for this to be possible for all but an outstanding few. What they need is a variety of living examples of implementation, by teachers with whom they can identify and from whom they can both derive conviction and confidence that they can do better, and see concrete examples of what doing better means in practice.>

I have had the personal experience of attending a course on differentiated lessons, and then implementing in two classrooms, after which I shared with colleagues my experience and worksheets. It was difficult, working alone to determine how my worksheet was to be crafted for differentiation (grouping students by ability in a class and asking different groups to work on questions of difficulty tiered so as to allow effective learning, and I would go around the classroom not informing students of the answers but giving hints or asking students to explain to each other). After which, although I shared with my colleagues the worksheets, I did not think many of them used it, or adopted the idea, as it took up took much curriculum time. Some however, did pass those worksheets to their students so that those who were interested could work on them at their leisure. My students did enjoy that one-off lesson, because group work is almost never implemented and too time-consuming for A level classes, and they said they did learn more in that lesson, rather than listen to me expound on concepts or tutorial problems which they might have already completed on their own.

Time has always been a factor. Yet, I am beginning to think that even if changes are minor, the effect might be great. For example, changing the way I question students in class, doing better written feedback, make time to compile self assessment tools for students. Surely we can do much better than to stick to our current ways of teaching? Yet I also fear, having to be a "living example", how do I know that what I'm doing is beneficial? Changing one's teaching patterns and behaviour is a hurdle I would have to overcome, and also, asking others to move towards or discuss with me these changes would be another difficulty I forsee.

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