Sunday, 24 July 2016

SciCon 2016 Musings part 2 - Catch 22's

More thoughts on Scicon (The biennial conference for science educators) before I completely forget them! Warning, this is a bit of a ramble :)

As well as presenting a workshop at the conference (which I talked about in the last post), I had the interesting experience of being asked to take part in a panel that was looking to discuss 'Where to with NCEA?'. The panel was mostly made up with representatives from MOE, NZQA and the tertiary sector - in both a research and teaching sense. These types of panels haven't happened at SciCon before, although traditionally there is always a strong representation from both secondary and tertiary at the conference.

The panel experience was interesting in itself, but more valuable to me were the conversations and subsequent realisations that occurred to me afterwards. There's nothing like sitting on a stage and saying potentially provocative statements to a supportive audience (and possibly not so supportive fellow panelists!) that provides instant conversation starters for the remaining days of the conference. All those conversations - mostly started by other people, but a couple instigated by myself, were overwhelmingly positive and provided me with a completely different viewpoint to the blanket assumptions I had made about the tertiary sector.

Below, these are my thoughts on the interface and associated relationship tensions that exist between secondary and tertiary education (from a science point of view anyway!)... this may be a bit of a ramble!

My assumptions:

Having spent 11 years being an undergrad and then postgrad student at University, and having tutored first year Biology and Medical Sciences for a number of years, I felt like I had a reasonably good idea about the differences in pedagogy between secondary, undergraduate and postgraduate. However, my experiences are tainted with the fact that I came through school, along with my cohort, under the old 'School C'/'Bursary' system, and so have no first-hand experience of learning through NCEA as a student. Most of my Uni student years finished in 2005, with just my teaching diploma and postgrad teaching certificate since. This means that my impression of how undergrad is taught in particular is likely to be outdated (in some circumstances!). The other aspect skewing my thinking is that most of the interaction between secondary and tertiary seems to come from tertiary decreeing that certain Achievement Standards are required for particular programmes, such as Engineering and Health Sciences. The mainstream media also seems to be constantly bagging NCEA for being a substandard qualification, apparently without actual evidence, and this sometimes appears to be joined to the impression that tertiary has. (I seem to remember when NCEA was introduced, that entrance to specialised, competitive courses changing from first year entry based on Bursary results, to after a first year course as the Universities didn't seem to have a clear grasp of the NCEA qualification, and couldn't make sense of the more complicated grades, and wanted to trust their own examination-based system to select these second year students - again, this is my impression and may not be completely accurate!)

My overall impression of tertiary was therefore that there was some mistrust of the quality of NCEA, and some specialised programmes wanted to make sure that content knowledge was still there, by requiring specific AS by students (carried out in external examinations). My Uni experience also made me remember undergrad teaching as being primarily lecture-based, with very little interaction between lecturer and students. In science, this was also backed up with practical labs, but still quite a unidirectional way of teaching as opposed to inquiry (and these are the labs I tutored later on).

Conversations and Realisations:

Talking to some tertiary educators, it is apparent that there are some changes taking place in undergrad science teaching, in small pockets at least. Moves towards group work, increased interactivity between lecturers and students, and leanings towards inquiry-type learning. I suspect, however, that the vast majority of undergrad teaching at most universities is still lecture-based, as this is what is familiar and comfortable, and change in tertiary comes very slowly. (This article is an interesting read - disclaimer - NZ Herald; disclaimer - paid content in NZ Herald!) 

A really interesting observation that was recounted to me (and was also voiced during the panel, but somehow came across in a misconstrued fashion) was that first year science students are entering university with a dearth of self-management skills. These students as a large cohort (and as a generalisation, compared to first year science students from a decade or more ago) have tendencies towards only caring about 'is this on the test/exam?', they don't know how to manage their own time, they are not self-motivated and don't seem to care about their learning, simply getting dragged through their courses with as much hand-holding as possible. This is completely my interpretation of the comments made to me, so possibly I'm exaggerating them! 

The realisation this lead to was that secondary and tertiary are stuck in this catch-22 situation. For some students who wish to gain entry to specialised courses, the restriction of Achievement Standards that are desired means that in most schools, the entire year's science curriculum is tailored towards these (even though not all students will be aiming for those Uni courses). The pressure on schools to produce a high level of attainment for their students (not just for courses, but also in this competitive schooling environment we find ourselves in - another topic completely!), means that teachers are 'teaching to the test'. Rather than teaching science at level 7 or 8 of the NZ curriculum, and assessing from this, achievement standards are taught as the goal - all the focus is on grades and trying to support students to do exactly what is required by each standard. While this has allowed students to achieve at higher and higher rates, what it means is that there is a fair amount of 'spoon-feeding' going on. 

The result of this is the catch-22: secondary schools are trying to deliver what tertiary has apparently asked for (in some circumstances) - students with high grades in specific achievement standards. However, many of these students lack the self-motivation and self-management skills that tertiary also desires, and is now noticing that this is causing problems for students as they enter a different learning environment, where no-one will be there to hold their hands and guide them through. For me personally, this situation provides reassurance and insight that what we are doing at HPSS is a pathway that could prevent some of these problems. By students taking more responsibility for their own learning, and by teaching the science curriculum (out of which achievement standards happen to fall), I believe that we are not only allowing students the opportunity to develop these personal dispositions that will let them succeed in both a university environment, but also in life in general; but also that we are supporting them to achieve just as successfully in the specified achievement standards. By providing personal pathways, not all students have to sit all the same standards, and the students that require certain pathways can follow these without having to tailor an entire year's course around them.

Moving forward:

On a larger scale, I wonder how we can improve the communication between secondary and tertiary? Because that's what I think it all comes down to - opening up communication lines, actually talking to each other about what we are doing, and what we want from each other. What do Universities want more - specific grades from specific Achievement standards, or skills that support student self-learning and self-motivation - because currently, it's incredibly challenging for most schools to deliver both. (Ideally we can change the way we teach both secondary and tertiary, but that's a longer-term goal!)

That said, we all need to be positive, proactive and constructive, rather than bagging what the other sector is doing. I have some contacts and connections I am keen to follow up with, to see if we can start doing this on a small scale and build from there! Because surely we all want the same thing? Lifelong learners who can add value to our society, and help to attack the massive problems our world is facing and desperately needs solutions for. Is education not more powerful when we are all on the same page?

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Scicon 2016 musings - Part 1

Scicon (The biennial conference for science educators) was held in Wellington this year; it's actually only the second one I've been to, the first one was in 2012 when I was still feeling rather fresh to the whole teaching thing. I've come away from this one feeling really positive and hopeful for the state of science education in NZ. Not necessarily because things are changing quickly - I feel like there is definitely an increase in how fast the ball is rolling, but there is still a long way to go! But more because there is a groundswell of support for change. There are many people on the same page, all keen and eager to see how they can change things for the better, for their students.

Cairan and I presented a workshop (which really turned into more of a Q&A session - but that's how we roll! Responsive to the situation at hand!), which had some really positive feedback. Our overview was that we were going to talk briefly about our teaching experiences in modules specifically, focussing on our experience in a cross-curricular environment (i.e. how we go about combining learning areas), and then get people to work through a few things, including giving them some scaffolding to think about how they could combine achievement standards from two learning areas together. All of our presentation material plus resources can be found here.

It was a very re-affirming process to share our experiences and hear such positive feedback, and to feel like people were planning to go back to their own schools to try and find a like-minded teaching buddy to bring about some change, if not trying to change things on a larger scale.

A couple of teachers from the same school, who both had backgrounds in Geography as well as Biology were incredibly enthused, and had easily seen how they could combine standards from Geo and Bio together - and even if they couldn't find another teacher to join them on their journey, then they had ideas about how they could combine two learning areas in their own classrooms, just by themselves.

Another teacher gave a very insightful comment, which I hadn't coherently pulled together before - not only are we teaching in a way that doesn't silo learning areas, but we are also teaching in a way that doesn't silo strands within the science curriculum, and also in a way that doesn't silo year levels - just because a student is in Year 11, doesn't mean we are restricted to offering a level 1 standard; we are better valuing our students by recognising the curriculum level that they happen to be working at.

So there were lots of positive comments and lots of good networking done also - I haven't really been so concerned about 'networking' aka making new friends at conferences before (well teaching conferences anyway! Science research conferences were always about networking...) But more than ever I'm seeing how important it is that like-minded teachers in NZ form a coherent, supportive network so that we can bring about real change. It's also important to me that I get to share the cool things that we are doing at HPSS, given that we do exist in what might seem like a privileged bubble sometimes...

Right, more musings to come - I was also asked to be part of a panel discussing the future of NCEA, alongside tertiary, MOE and NZQA representatives. Some really interesting discussions and reflections came out of that experience, but it deserves a whole post to itself!

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Social media in teaching and professional development

This blogpost is part of a MindLab assignment, looking into the use of social media within teaching and professional development in education.

My initial view of social media as it pertained to teaching and professional development (as of when I started my secondary teaching career, just on 5 years ago now) was that social media was just that - social, and I didn't originally see the possibilities and opportunities.

Since that time, my use of twitter, blogger and facebook groups has grown extensively; and including categories mentioned by the NZ education council (shown below in the image) - I have also used social media for collaboration (edmodo, prezi, google drive), networking (facebook, linkedin, google+), image sharing (pintrest), video sharing (youtube), micro-blogging (twitter) and blogging (blogger).


The platforms that I find I use most often are:

Google drive: partly because HPSS uses this as its primary, ubiquitous platform for both teachers and students, but also because I now don't know how I could survive not having access to a plethora of documents from all aspects of my teaching, and others teaching, as well as admin documentation, all at the end of the internet.

Twitter: a great way to connect with other educators within NZ and overseas - in particular the regular 'chats' such as #edchatnz and #scichatnz provide a great way of connecting to other educators as well as a platform to be challenged on issues within education that may not come up from our usual professional circles.

Facebook - private groups: in particular the 'science teachers of NZ' group, amongst others. This also provides a (more private than twitter) way of connecting with a larger circle of educators, who come from a variety of backgrounds.

The education council states: "social media can be an effective tool for engaging with learners and communicating with parents, whanau and communities. Teachers who model good social media use will grow learners who apply positive, respectful values in their interactions on social media platforms."

Supporting this, there are many 'how to' guides out there for teachers, pointing out both positive and negative aspects of social media:

My perspective:

Overall, I feel that these are the positives associated with social media use. 

  • Collaboration: both between teachers, and with students - platforms such as edmodo, google+ and twitter provide instant feedback in both directions between students and teachers, and can allow students to contribute their own resources to a class etc.
  • You don't know what you don't know: exposure to ideas, strategies and people outside of my usual teaching bubble - allowing me to expand the way I teach. This has mostly happened through use of twitter and private facebook groups.
  • Modelling social media: letting students see explicitly how social media can be used responsibly, and trying to get them to do the same.(This does take time and multiple exposures to it, however!)

The potential negatives or pitfalls:

  • Over-connectedness: Making sure that teachers do in fact get some down time away from their careers. This is especially important as teachers already take plenty of work home with them - it's important to make sure they are not connected to these social networks all the time, as this can contribute to burn-out.
  • Risk of sharing: being careful about what is shared in public forms by both teachers and students; making it very clear what is and isn't acceptable.
  • Echo-chamber: sometimes, after prolonged use of the same social media platforms, such as twitter, it becomes apparent that the same ideas are circulating over and over, just with new people attached to the ideas. It is important to remember that there is a very select group of people (who self-select to use twitter, and therefore often share fairly similar points of view).

How to balance these?

I believe that balance itself is the answer - using these platforms and tools in a sensible way, where teachers feel that they are gaining benefit from using social media, but don't feel obligated to be constantly using it. In other words, making social media work for the teacher and students, rather than feeling like you are putting more effort into social media. The use of it should fall out naturally from practice, not be something forced (although obviously for teachers less experienced in social media use, this will take effort and time to achieve!)

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Contemporary trends and issues influencing education

This blogpost is part of a Mindlab assignment, relating to the evaluation of contemporary trends or issues that are influencing and/or shaping education.

Part 1: The future is unpredictable

It is likely that many of the career paths we value today may not actually exist within the lifetimes of the students we are teaching. Reports state that many of the jobs that occupy us today will be obsolete even within 10 years:
"Almost any job that can be described as a “process” could be done by a computer, whether that computer is housed in a robot or embedded somewhere out of sight.
So if intelligent machines can take over many of the jobs of today, what can you do to ensure your job prospects in the future?" (Washington Post)
So how do we prepare our students for career paths and jobs that do not actually exist? Futurists such as Thomas Frey have stated that looking at skillsets that will be of use in the future provides us with opportunities:

The interesting take on these skills is that they are interdisciplinary, transferrable skills or capabilities that will allow our current day students to become experts in their fields, rather than training them to leave educational facilities already experts. Many of the skills listed above also lend themselves towards a mindset as opposed to being standalone skills in their own right.
I feel that at HPSS, we are supporting the development of student capabilities for the future in several ways: Blending learning areas together, to allow for the visible and explicit transfer of skills that are traditionally silo'd into their respective learning areas; giving students the opportunity to bring skills and knowledge together to find and solve problems through Big Projects and now Impact Projects with our Year 11 students; and emphasising the importance of a dispositional curriculum that underpins so much of what we do.
Other relevant sites: 

Part 2: Changing the paradigm from standardisation

In a 2010 talk, the brilliant Sir Ken Robinson talks about moving away from the idea of standardisation, and standardised testing in particular:

The aspect of this that appeals to me most is the idea of divergent thinking - the concept that rather than having one set answer to a given problem, or one way of thinking about things, there are instead a multitude of ways of approaching issues and questions, and using creative thinking to provide possible solutions. 
(Screenshot from Ken Robinson's talk)

Strategies that can promote divergent thinking are detailed well at this site and include such things as deferring judgement - so generating ideas without immediately dismissing them; brainstorming both individually and in groups - as a way of not limiting the potential answers to just one response; combining ideas - using ideas from others and building on them.
"Divergent behavior is discouraged in school when students are scared to say or do the "wrong thing" in class. This is not surprising since schools often tolerate environments in which both teachers and peer groups keep in-check those who say and do things that are off-script, incorrect or inappropriate. This system of overt-convergence is enforced by a grading culture that systematically penalizes students for being "wrong," and by allowing a school environment in which students tease those who exhibit non-normative behaviors. So, if divergent thinking is key to being creative, it becomes clear why our students find being open with their imaginations and divergent ideas inhibited." (Edutopia link)

Although there are certain restrictions in science, especially as pertains to NCEA external achievement standards, there is certainly a strong correlation between divergent thinking and the nature of science, where ideas are built upon, and alternative methods and approaches are tested without judgement.

I do believe that I encourage this type of thinking, and in the combining of learning areas such as social science with science, or visual arts with science (as I am teaching this semester), you gain the benefit of having different ways of approaching problems and thinking outside of the usual silo'd learning area toolset.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Interdisciplinary Awesomeness

This blogpost is a summary of how I teach within an interdisciplinary learning environment, what the benefits and challenges are, and some goals I have regarding where to next? (This has been well-documented by other HPSS teachers, but I am summarising for my MindLab course!)

Every time I speak to friends working within the 'real life' science sector, and when I reflect on my own experience working in industry, the consensus is that the real skills required are in problem-solving, generating creative solutions by drawing on multiple experiences, asking questions and taking answers from other areas of not only science, but other areas of research also.

As a brief example, my work in the lab routinely involved researching methods other labs had used (general research skills, interpreting the science), figuring out how I could apply their methods to the equipment and resources I had available (analysing, mathematical calculations, critical thinking), physically constructing equipment (technology, design process in iterations of equipment), gathering data and analysing it (mathematical calculations, scientific interpretations of data), checking and collating work (collaboration with colleagues, communication), evidencing and documenting (writing, considering application of data, testing hypotheses)... just to name a few. Most of these do not include the rote learning of factual pieces of science information - information required could be hunted out; it was the skills of being able to do something with the information that were more important.

So, teaching and learning within an interdisciplinary school means that not only do we combine learning areas, and teach through context rather than knowledge-based topics, but also that we have critically evaluated how all the learning areas fit together, and the common language that comes from that. Because all teachers across all learning areas are using common language, and we do not 'silo' subjects, no student has ever questioned why we learn skills that are not directly science-related; they don't pigeon-hole their skills and understanding. This alone is huge, as it means they have a larger range of learning tools to draw from in a given situation.

We also use a common theme for each term for our year 9&10 students - this also helps to cement the connections between learning areas, and to explicitly show students how different learning areas approach the same concept or theme.

The challenges so far have been in sometimes finding obvious connections between some learning areas, but in turn this has lead to a deeper search for connections, and often a more authentic one. To be honest, I struggle to find too many challenges that are not able to be overcome. We still support our own learning areas by meeting regularly and discussing how we are doing things, but for the most part we automatically find connections and inspiration outside of our learning areas - including our offices which are a combination of learning area teachers.

Some of my goals this year are to further expand the connections I make to external experts - using people in industry and universities to expose our students to an even wider range of the application of ideas. I have done this in the past, either bringing experts into school, taking our kids outside of school or skyping guest presenters; I hope to do this on a larger scale this year.

Overall, I have learned more about how students experience school, and the fact that most schools have completely different expectations on students within every class they attend during the day - by isolating our subjects, we reinforce to students that learning is compartmentalised, and not transferrable. By combining learning areas and teaching cross-curricula skills, we teach that learning is applicable across the board, and encourage creativity and problem-solving (in my humble opinion!)

My Community of Practice

"Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice" (Link) - this blogpost addresses some ideas around my own community of practice.

"Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." (link)

My community of practice is made up of the educators within HPSS, and also outside observers and teacher-friends who are keeping a keen eye on what we are doing. Our core values lie within establishing and maintaining a student-centred focus to our practice, as well as trying to enact change on a larger scale, to model how teaching and learning can be done differently, but with equally good outcomes for students. Therefore our largest stakeholders are our students and their families, but to a lesser extent we also want to show that our approach has value to other educators. This also means we hold ourselves accountable for trying new strategies, amending and changing when things don't work perfectly, and always striving to create positive experiences for our students alongside high personal and academic achievements.

What are the current issues/challenges in your community? How would you or your community of practice address them?

I believe that some current issues relate to evidencing around personal and academic success in relation to the different approaches we take. All of our teachers at HPSS make anecdotal remarks and observations about the high level of achievement and success that many of our students are making, in comparison to our collective prior experience at other, more traditional schools. However, as we are yet to have a full cohort run through the full spectrum of NCEA, we likely have detractors outside of our community that value only one facet of evidence, which we currently don't have. I feel that we collectively need to continue documenting the progress that our students make - in a passive, objective way, simply presenting examples of work that our students produce. Many of our educators are active bloggers, and this is a way of presenting what we are doing to the outside world. Observers outside of our school know that we are doing things differently - we need to be visible in showing them how and why (which I believe we are already doing reasonably well).

What changes are occurring in the context of your profession? How do you think you or your community of practice should address them?
"If we’re not just trying to teach factual recall like we often did in the past, what are we trying to do? Well I guess we’re trying to teach higher level skills. We’re trying to teach critical thinking. We’re trying to teach synthesis, analysis. We’re trying to raise a generation that are cleverer than we are." (Teaching for 21st century learners)
For communities of practice that are trying to shift the way that we approach education to best support our current learners, the onus is on them to maintain a voice and momentum for change. We are constantly critically evaluating our curriculum at HPSS, and refining approaches in response to student and staff feedback, however we also need to ensure we don't become too introspective and insular, and continue to look outside of our own practice.

Reflecting on reflective practice

As part of a MindLab assignment, I am reflecting on the article by Linda Finlay - 'reflecting on reflective practice' (Link):

The points that ring true to me are as follows:

  • I agree that being a teacher involves a pathway of lifelong learning, and as such, we need to hold ourselves accountable to critically reflect upon our own practice, and change when necessary.
  • It can be challenging and testing to reflect on situations and experiences that have not gone to plan, and to question how and why you should do things better next time - another point made was that it can be easy to avoid this reflection, and fall back on pre-conceived notions and ideas of how classrooms should be run. It is certainly more taxing and tiring to genuinely question your own practice.
  • The article mentions that over-reflection can also lead to self-doubt and destruction of confidence - especially if the term 'critical' is taken to have negative connotations. Therefore reflection of this nature needs to be well-supported.
  • Reflection activities with students should be done in a nurturing and natural way, with multiple ways of reflection presented to them, and the concept that sometimes there isn't a right answer.

Own use of a reflective model:

My own reflective practice appears to fall most closely to that proposed by Rhodes, Stokes and Hampton (A practical guide to mentoring, coaching, and peer-networking: teacher professional development in schools and colleges), as outlined below:

This model is not specifically discussed within the paper by Linda Finlay, however it includes the skills that underpin critical reflection, and also resembles the circular model of Gibbs. I relate most to this model of reflection as it has clear parallels to the overall teaching as inquiry process. The model detailed above appeals to me as it is scaffolded and is question-based, but mostly deals with strategies that could be used for change (eg. what skills do I have/need?) - other models rely on intuition and feeling, with Gibbs' model placing a fair amount of questioning on the feeling and analysis of good/bad outcomes. However, I believe that as a teacher, I automatically consider my feelings within a situation of concern, and would rather spend energy dealing in facts and approaches to change situations. This is also relevant for me, as teaching at HPSS requires many new approaches and strategies all the time, and I need a model for reflection that is straightforward to use. The article also emphasises that models like Gibbs do not allow for a more external approach, and instead focus only on the internal aspects of reflection - meaning that bigger, broader ideas regarding change may not be automatically approached. This is obviously hugely necessary - as we say to our students: 'you don't know what you don't know', and big picture thinking and reflecting is essential for lifelong learning as teachers.