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Posts Tagged ‘thinking’

  1. Visible Thinking

    23 February 2017 by shartley

    (not my niece but from

    Over the last week I have been visiting my brother and his wife and their 9 month old baby, Ruby. As I watched Ruby live and learn about the world through experimenting with lots of trials and errors, I thought of the students in my classes expected by the system to learn in a linear and orderly fashion.  It’s just not how it’s done.  

    Ruby started to crawl not long before my visit. While I was there, she couldn’t decide whether it was worth her while to lift from the commando style crawl to the more rigid hands and knees crawl. She was partly deterred from using her knees because as soon as she left her alphabet play-mat she would encounter the hard and slippery wooden floors.  But tonight a video was posted online of her crawling, hands and knees, down the length of the hallway, slippery wooden floor and all. The way she placed her hands so deliberately it looked like she’d studied a textbook, or I really should say, YouTube, or that she had been coached.  It’s like my daughter after 8 years of tennis coaching running to the net with her coach’s voice in her head telling her how to exactly move her feet and swing the racket. On the other hand, my son, with minimal coaching, runs around on a tennis court like a cartoon Tasmanian devil and has a similar success rate.  Yet Ruby wasn’t coached as to how to crawl, by a textbook, video or human.  It is part of her natural development, even if some babies skip the hands and knees stage (like her father), and she will become more fluid with practice. How much do we stifle our students’ natural development?

    Ruby is normally contained to an area defined by two couches and two walls with just a small gap between a couch and a wall.  Sometimes that space is plugged by an ottoman but when it isn’t present off she goes! However, she doesn’t go far because soon she is distracted by a well stocked wine rack. “No”, her mother says. She stops, hesitates, but decides the bottles just look so good she has to touch them. Down swoops Mum to prevent glass shattering, wine loss and a bleeding baby as a result.  I’ve always been an advocate for having a few things in the house which babies and toddlers can touch but shouldn’t, to start early the idea of self regulation. I’m not so sure now.  How much do we harm our students by forcing them to be contained within classrooms, subjects and timetables?

    Our children need freedom to discover and learn, to try and fail and fail again.  Ruby tried to pull out a bottle of wine several times in the 5 days I was there but she was thwarted on every occasion, as is necessary for her safety.  But still she persisted.  When do children lose persistence?  I suspect it is when they discover adults have all the answers.  Or Google.  They can then become passive in their learning.  I remember when I was little asking my Mum what certain words meant or how they were spelt and being told to look it up in the dictionary.  Now I just type unknown words in Google and the answer appears almost instantly.

    While I was visiting my brother’s family I revisited the book, Making Thinking Visible, by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison.  Ron Ritchhart is going to be presenting at a conference I’m attending this Saturday so I thought I’d refamiliarise myself with the language he speaks.  One of my favourite quotes from the book is:

    Thinking doesn’t happen in a lockstep, sequential manner, systematically progressing from one level to the next. It is much messier, complex, dynamic and interconnected than that. (p.8)

    A baby doesn’t suddenly shift from commando crawling to hands and knees crawling to standing to walking along furniture to walking freely.  Babies are usually learning to do bits of these skills at a time, simultaneously to various degrees.  Ruby likes standing with people holding her and by leaning on furniture but sometimes she forgets that she hasn’t gained complete control of this standing business and topples over when she doesn’t maintain a hold. And that’s OK, as long as someone is around to stop her hurting herself in a significant way.  Our role as teachers is to provide a safe environment, conducive for learning.

    Ruby doesn’t need to be given a mark for her crawling ability. The nurse, GP and/or paediatrician just want to know she is doing it within the parameters of the normal age. My son had trouble relative to his peers with his fine motor skills before he started school so he attended occupation therapy (OT) to be sufficiently ready for school, meaning preparing him to hold a pencil.  The best advice the OT had was to give him Lego.  For him, having mild autism, the control freak aspect of it, the linear progression of building Lego by numerated steps was bliss. He’s now 17 years old and it is still one of his favourite activities. It also helped immensely with his fine motor skills. The beauty of play, huh!

    Learning though has become a very serious business in our institutionalised system, and is a political fireball thrown around parliament and in the media. This week the NSWESA released new syllabuses (or is it syllabi?) for English, Mathematics, History and Science subjects with the hashtag #strongerHSC repeatedly employed by their main account on Twitter and their human representatives. I constantly have the impression from our dear NSW education authority that it wants the HSC to be known as the toughest, most stringent and demanding course across the country. Too bad about the stress and anxiety that high-stakes testing causes.  Too bad that an emphasis on exams and phrases like “mastering knowledge and skills” reduces the desire to learn and the enjoyment thereof.

    Additionally, as the book Making Thinking Visible claims, mere knowledge does not produce understanding. Deep understanding requires a range of thinking skills that isn’t clear from our content heavy syllabuses/syllabi. The book lists the thinking required for understanding as (p.11 and p.13):

    • Observing closely and describing what’s there
    • Building explanations and interpretations
    • Reasoning with evidence
    • Making connections
    • Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
    • Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
    • Wondering and asking questions
    • Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

    Of course we don’t only think to understand phenomenon, we think to solve problems, make decisions and form judgments (p.14):

    • Identifying patterns and making generalisations
    • Generating possibilities and alternatives
    • Evaluating evidence, arguments and actions
    • Formulating plans and monitoring actions
    • Identifying claims, assumptions and bias
    • Clarifying priorities, conditions and what is known

    This is what I want my students to be doing.  The trick, as the book’s title suggests, is to make thinking visible.  We need to ask what is going on in our students’ heads (p.16) and provide them with the strategies that instigates the thinking and reveals it. As teachers, we then need to listen (p.36) and document (p.37) their thinking. Not merely hand out marks for attainment of knowledge. It is difficult to understand the thinking process of babies without language but oh boy, crying, frowning, smiling and laughter are effective forms of communication.  My son has difficulties expressing what’s going on in his head but his body language can be quite clear. We just need to pay attention.

    I hope to post before Saturday some of the thinking routines promoted in the book and how I’ve used them in class and how I intend to use them in the future.

    One final note, however. As I‘ve typed this up I realised there is one key component missing from these ideas of thinking, and that is creativity. Last night I watched the first two episodes of My Year 12 Life (ABCTV) and felt for the girl lamenting about the emphasis on the subjects that scale, like those in the new syllabus release this week, instead of her favourites, which are deemed optional extras, like her Drama and Textiles. She was considering continuing with her study of Modern History just because it scales better than her other subjects. There’s something wrong with the system that makes students think like this.  She mentioned she is also studying Society and Culture so I’m looking forward to following her journey there. I’ve loved teaching Society and Culture due to the range of topics that stimulate thinking and encourage looking at alternative perspectives.

  2. TeachMeet: Solve For x

    20 October 2016 by shartley

    Phillip taking a selfie before presenting. I'm the one waving up the back.

    Phillip taking a selfie before presenting.
    I’m the one waving up the back.

    * This blog post is also found at

    I have been to several TeachMeets.  This particular TeachMeet was held at Google headquarters in Sydney which was one of the main attractions for me.  I missed out on one two years earlier and as I searched for the Twitter hashtag for this evening I found an exchange that occurred about the use of #TMGoogle – the issue being that TeachMeets are supposed to be teacher ran and teachers as presenters, no sponsorship.  However, to host a TeachMeet in a cool location such as Google HQ there is a trade-off.  Tonight I felt the trade to be rather unequal.  The hashtag was not #TMGoogle but perhaps it should have been. It seemed every second speaker represented Google and was promoting something, useful somethings, but advertisements nevertheless. An extra grating factor was that teacher presenters were held to their time limits, albeit poorly, speakers not being deterred by soft Star Wars toys being thrown at them when their time had expired, yet Google presenters had limitless time.  And trust me, the teachers were much more interesting than the Google employees.

    The stated theme of this TeachMeet was ‘Solve for x’, thereby promoting problem solving in education, that students solve whatever issue ‘x’ represented for teachers and/or students. The evening was officially launched by Kimberley Sutton through a YouTube video to explain the concept: Moonshot Thinking: Solve for x @ Tribeca Film Festival. Our first teacher presenter linked a goal to this theme nicely.

    I have known Phillip Cooke through TeachMeets and Twitter for many years.  He is a passionate secondary school educator and declared this evening that his moonshot concept is teaching for life instead of for exams, a policy I am also passionate about.  I have enjoyed seeing Phillip present on this theme in many variations before. He is always interesting because not only does he and his colleagues come up with the ideas but they actually implement them, although I’m sure he wish he could implement more.  Phillip was intricately involved in the complete rebuild of his school, a school often seen in the industry as an alternative option for the misfits in our education system and thus had a poor reputation for a long time for drugs and disruptive behaviour. However, its hands-on practical approach to education is becoming more dominant in industry discourse and it has featured on a TV show for doing things a little differently.

    Phillip’s attitude towards authentic learning is borne out by some of the initiatives he has shared:

    • Establishing an annual Creative Careers Day where the future implications of their learning come to life through the people operating in creative enterprises
    • Implementing cross-curricular activities, such as Design and Technology with English and Drama to create wearable art costumes for a production of Othello, “Students didn’t just read Othello – they lived it
    • Printing art designs of students on tea towels and selling them, simple but effective (also make great thank you presents at Teach Meets)

    If I was to give my own moonshot for teaching and learning is that I desperately want students to be thinking for themselves. As a senior school teacher, I hate how much teaching is about preparing for HSC exams, such as artificial artifice that it diminishes authentic learning.  This is why I always like what Phillip has to say.

    Dominic Hearne set the tone of his talk by quoting Gary Stager, “Schools have a sacred obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love”. In line with this philosophy, Dominic’s school has introduced a series of compulsory critical thinking courses, which I absolutely applaud. These include:

    • Future Problem Solving
    • Visions of Leadership
    • The Art of War / The Ethics of Peace
    • Epistemology (how do we think, why do we think, what influences our thinking and perception)

    My daughter is currently studying International Relations and Human Rights at university. She would have loved the opportunity to examine some of these topics at school.  Her response being:


    One of the students undertaking this course used several sources to investigate the Jewish holocaust and, as might be expected, referred to movie representations of the holocaust such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He also had access to his grandmother’s letters and other documents depicting her time as a Jew interned by Hitler.  The result was not just a well researched product but the rest of the class had a new insight into the atrocities.

    Nick Brierley hooked me by not only emphasising the thinking skill of problem solving but linking to the TV show Stranger Things, where the children in the show are constantly having to solve problems, not always successfully. He advocated the use of BreakoutEDU, a resource for creating engaging problem-solving games in classrooms. This is definitely a tool I will investigate further.

    Technology definitely has a role to play in developing students’ critical thinking skills. A primary school teacher, Alfina Jackson commenced with the statement that she hasn’t heard students say they need PD before they can use technology, so if they can do it, teachers can do it too.  Glib, but mostly true. I have come across many teachers who are so ingrained in teaching the same way, with the same worksheets, year after year, that they truly struggle with making more than the occasional change to their regular modus of operation.

    Alfina has her own YouTube Channel, mainly consisting of videos made by K-2 students.  These videos demonstrate learning in an authentic and meaningful way for our modern age.  Without many of us realising it, children are learning all the time through YouTube.  Actually many adults too.  I recently used YouTube to learn how to cast-off my knitting.  Alfina is therefore not only teaching students a particular topic, she is teaching digital responsibility.  Creating public videos also motivates students through the hands-on activity and real audience feedback.  All of this requires several higher-order thinking processes.

    Another initiative Alfino implemented was Year 1 completing book reviews on Google Slides. For the content, the teacher taught students to use three simple sentence word-starters:

    • I liked the part…
    • I disliked the part…
    • I would change…

    However, after a quick introduction to using Google Slides, the students worked out for themselves and taught each other the various creative features of using the slides.  After the first drafts were completed the teacher provided feedback through the comment feature which prompted students to comment on each other’s reviews, leading to a discussion of how to write positively, particularly in a public domain.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe technology should be used for simply its own sake.  Alfino showed how students learning to write could trace the letter on an iPad.  I’m not sure how this particularly improves on the pen and paper version except simply for the hook that it is on an iPad.

    The highlight of the evening was the dynamic Kathleen O’Rourke. Kathleen is learning to become a Primary School teacher at Macquarie University after a decade or so in the workforce. She is passionate about many things and her LinkedIn profile reveals she is not only an advocate for education and the marginalised but she walks the talk.  At first I thought she was also going to emphasise technology due to her tagline, “Is it OK to ask students to do something that we are not comfortable to do ourselves?” Instead, Kathleen answered that question with, “If we don’t pursue our x’s how can we expect our students to?”

    As part of being a pre-service teacher, Kathleen decided there wasn’t enough professional development on offer, beyond the regular uni courses and practicum experience so out together some events and now the concept has exploded.  As a full-time carer for her grandmother, Kathleen found it difficult to access working disabled toilets, particularly in medical institutions.  Consequently, she has an aim to develop an app that lists and user-rates them. I spoke to Kathleen at the end of the evening and found just how determined she is to put theory into action. Earlier that day she had been at a school presenting to teachers and discussing with them a university assignment. This was not part of the set work.  She has also tutored primary-aged students who are newly settled refugees on a volunteer basis.

    I was not the only one who thought Kathleen was amazing. This was the reaction on Twitter:

    screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-25-15-pm screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-25-30-pm screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-25-47-pm screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-28-48-pm

    All in all it was worthwhile attending this TeachMeet.  I learned about some new Google products and enjoyed hearing how other teachers are implementing problem solving and other critical thinking activities.  However, I’d prefer it if future TeachMeets adhered to the no sponsorship ideal, even (especially?) if it means returning to the pubs and clubs where they began.

  3. But Why?

    19 February 2015 by shartley

    I love the curiosity of younger kids.  I love toddlers who ask “But why?”  I don’t like that by the time they arrive at high school many have lost their enthusiasm.

    In Year 7 Geography we start with ‘What is Geography?’  I have some beautifully enthusiastic boys who are keen to contribute, one in particular is quite earnest.  The other 20-something students already view school as a chore.  Which is sad.

    What is also sad that their answer to ‘What is Geography?’ just focuses on knowledge and understanding.  I spent several minutes this week saying, “but why?”, to encourage further thought and development.  It was painful, but eventually we arrived at:

    • To care for the world
    • To solve problems like global warming and floods
    • To prepare for the future

    The next day I revisited the question and it still took a while to arrive at the why.  When did children stop thinking about the why?

    In Year 11 Society and Culture this week we discussed the differences between interactions they have at home with their family, with their friends, with people they know at school who aren’t close friends, with people in their sporting clubs and how they may be influenced by media and government.  Again, I had to be persistent with asking, “But why?”  Thankfully this is a class of thoughtful students.  I can almost see the cogs turning in their heads as I probe for more and more and their fascination increases as they learn more and more.  This is a class that will bring me joy.

    Even in HSC Business Studies I was asking, “But why?”  Why do businesses need to monitor, control and look for continual improvement?  Why do they want to offer after-sales service?  Why are stores laid out certain ways?  I’m tired of students thinking that all they need to do is make comprehensive textbook summary notes to achieve well in the HSC when synthesis and problem-solving are also important.  A couple of my more diligent students were reluctant to think about the type of customer service a bicycle shop could offer their customers at the point of sale and beyond, and thus wrote a single sentence response so they could tick the mental box that the task was complete.  When I had the discussion with them to push their thinking further they came up with some brilliant suggestions.  The trick now is to transfer that thinking into a pen and paper exam.

    But why is it such a struggle to push students beyond a memorising mindset?

  4. One More Mark

    15 February 2015 by shartley

    We recently had an assembly at my school to celebrate the students who received an ATAR over 90 in the HSC last year.  There was a brief introduction from the Principal, a guest speaker who was surprisingly entertaining and in-depth about having respect for yourself by demonstrating respect for others, a speech from an all-rounder from the class of 2014 and a speech from the student who achieved the highest ATAR in 2014.  The students’ speeches consistently referred to balance but also a commitment to study.  The Head of Curriculum spoke about “one more mark”.

    I am currently finishing my Masters in Education with a plan in place to do a literature review as one of my last subjects in preparation for a Masters of Research as a lead-in to a PhD.  A long road is marked ahead.  For my PhD I plan to examine the increasing emphasis on marks as the main goal instead of marks being a mere measure of learning.  Sometimes the learning component of 13 years of formal school education is lost in a single number.  Too many times I ask students what they want to do when they leave school and they have no idea.  When I ask what they want to achieve at school they say a good mark in the HSC.  I ask why and more often than not it is to please their parents.  I ask what interests them in what they’re learning, and they say not much, they are just aiming for good marks.  How sad is that?

    The “one more mark” speech implored students to ask their teachers what they could do for just one more mark.  You see, data analysis of the school’s HSC results revealed numerous 88s and 89s in individual subjects so the aim is to push students into Band 6 (90+) because we have more Band 5s than the average school, shouldn’t it be easy to push them into Band 6 with a one more mark philosophy?  I think not.  I think the underlying problem is more associated with a culture of teaching to the test and spoon-feeding, of memorising and regurgitating, not just in my school but across many, many schools.  Band 6 is about demonstrating high-order thinking skills, critical thinking, problem solving and the like.  Remembering one more fact will not push an 89 to a 90.

    Now as much as I am an advocate for learning to be a focus over the memorising for tests, part of my job is preparing students for the HSC and its testing regime.  In Society and Culture students need to know, understand and apply some core concepts.  We drill the eleven main definitions underlying just about everything studied in Society and Culture.  My Year 11s recently sat their first test of these eleven definitions.  One student perfectly provided the first six but then left the remaining five blank.  She didn’t want to even try to use words from her own understanding, she only wanted to give the precise words of the syllabus.  Again, how sad is that?

    This weekend I marked a practice HSC Business Studies extended response I had given as holiday work.  They were a long way below the standard I expect from these students.  I believe the majority didn’t do them over the holidays but the night before they submitted it.  The question was How can different sources of funds help a business achieve its financial objectives?  Both the sources of funds and financial objectives listed in the syllabus were handed out when the question was issued at the end of last year but many students failed to refer to them, probably because they just took the question from the ediary entry.  Most of those who did use these syllabus terms, did not link them to show how different sources of funds help businesses to achieve financial objectives but merely provided textbook definitions of each term and tacked on introductions and conclusions.  Needless to say, it was a disappointing marking process.  However, despite my reservations about the “one more mark” speech I am going to hand these responses back with marks and an expectation of how many more marks they are to achieve in their second attempt.  I feel like I’m going against my principles but that it could be a good way for them to see that their poor attempt at the only bit of homework I set over seven or so weeks of the holidays just isn’t good enough.  The increase of marks expected have been determined by my gut instinct based on having spent a year with these students and thus knowing what they can achieve.  Some students are being asked for just two more marks, some ten and a whole range in between.  Wish me luck!

  5. Focus

    10 February 2015 by shartley

    I need to focus.

    I need to focus on what each and every one of my students are doing and what I am doing for them.

    I need to focus on the staff around me so I know how to help them and build a collaborative environment.

    I need to focus on the syllabus and the greater curriculum requirements of the school.

    I need to focus on the politics within the school to negotiate the best path for students.

    I need to focus on what is current for the subjects I teach.

    I need to focus on understanding and implementing the most appropriate technology for teaching.

    I need to focus on my family and its needs and wants.

    I need to focus on me and my health and general well-being.

    Obviously it is a never-ending list but what is there, demonstrates how teachers are called upon to focus on a wide amount, often varying and contradictory demands.

    My 15 year old son has mild autism and associated anxiety issues. It is extremely rare for him to approach a teacher or even ask a question in class.  Therefore, if he doesn’t understand, nobody knows, he just isn’t on task.  However, he isn’t on task a lot because he just isn’t interested.  He’d much rather be playing games or watching YouTube, preferably of other people playing games.  At school he struggles mostly with literacy tasks.  Yet, if he is interested he can write a considerable amount on the topic.  It breaks my heart when he learns an incredible amount and then some abstract question tricks him up in an exam.  He was incredibly focused when Year 9 English studied genre in films via Edward Scissorhands.  He talked about it at home a lot which shows the impact it had on him.  The final exam question asked about the director’s purpose of using a wide variety of genres.  He rattled off in over a page of neat writing all the evidence of the various genres in the film in fine detail.  He failed to state the director’s purpose.  He failed the exam.

    The problem is that I am a keen campaigner for higher-order thinking skills and changing the exam culture of regurgitation.  In my son’s case, for this unit of study, regurgitation style would have been great.

    He loves Commerce. Right from Day One of Year 9.  He was able to talk about what he did in class each lesson with enthusiasm.  He obviously focused.  I don’t know what that teacher did pedagogically but I know she cared for him as an individual.  Relationships matter so much!  As he became tired at the end of the year he was a little less focused and wasn’t able to regurgitate key definitions in the final exam but he understood the concepts with which they were associated.  Understanding the exact meaning of words isn’t important to him.

    In another exam he had to choose to argue about a supplied local, national or global issue.  He chose to write about war in Syria and whether Australia should be involved (the global issue).  The way to argue in an extended response was slightly scaffolded in the exam which was very helpful.  He knew nothing about war in Syria but he knew about WWII from watching documentaries on Foxtel and YouTube and he transferred his knowledge to this piece of writing.  I’m very proud of him for this effort.  He focused well in the exam and managed that art of transference which so many students fail to do because they are so hung up on what they were supposed to remember.  The teacher wrote on his paper, “You did it!”.

    These are the success stories of last year.  2014 Year 9 was at a new school and though there were many changes and bad habits that needed to be broken, it was a good move in terms of finding a good friend and an improvement in attitude but there were still little heartbreaks for us.

    My son is naturally good at Music and Maths but he bombs a lot in Music because he can’t be bothered with theory, he’s just interested in learning Music by ear and playing around with it, not writing about it.

    The problem with Maths is simply focus.  As soon as he learns a new skill in Maths, he shoots off with it, enjoys it and the method sticks.  Since he started high school he hasn’t focused in Maths classes so he doesn’t learn the skills and then he bombs out.  He was in the near top level at the start of Year 9 but half way through the year we were informed that he was dropping a level.  His friend moved up a level.  That was tough.  As a Mum, I started helping him more and he lifted his results gradually for the rest of the year but not enough to be moved back up.  We thought about paying for a tutor but then we realised that I could teach him it was just a matter of making the time and since I was willing to drive him somewhere for tutoring, surely I’d be willing to sit with him and review the week’s Maths.  Since we made that decision I have revisited Trigonometry.  As I re-taught myself Trig and taught my son, he just flew away with it.  He still needs encouragement to do homework but knowing how to do it, might seem obvious, means he is more inclined to do his homework.  We skipped today’s session because he was on top of it and I snoozed through last week’s because he only needed a push at the start.  If only he focused in class he wouldn’t have to put up with his Mum being on his back at home.  So if he isn’t focusing on learning new concepts, what is he focusing on?  Well, the first teacher in Year 9 mentioned his phone being constantly used (where was discipline for the first 6 months before we were informed of this!) and I know from what he tells me, he also focuses on the poor behaviour of the students around him.  He is often off task in class but he isn’t disruptive and he finds the other students rude and disruptive.  He also hates working in noisy rooms.  He is not a student made for open class style learning (not done at his current school) and needs implicit instruction to start him off.

    When I teach from the front of the classroom, I try to focus on each student individually, looking at each of them to gauge their focus and try to shift it where it should be accordingly.  The students say I’m one of the better teachers for picking use of mobile phones and other distractions.  My focus is on the students foremost.  Their learning in a safe and respectful environment is the foundation of my focus.  But sometimes all the other things I am meant to focus on sometimes means the students are not so much in focus and I have to make adjustments to rectify it.  When I completely lose focus from the students it will be time to stop teaching.

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