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What if…my teacher was an app??? February 26, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Educational Leadership, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Associate Professor Susanne Gannon

Susanne Gannon writes on the increasing trend in schools towards online learning, and argues that teachers are very important in utilisng new technologies in education; indeed that “the teacher is the key”.

Last November the Wall Street Journal reported in ‘My teacher is an app’ on an increasing trend in the United States for high schooling to be delivered entirely online. In particular states, this phenomenon has been more marked than others. The article reports that Florida requires all public school students to take at least one class online, Idaho will soon require two, while Georgia allows public school students to take entire courses on their iphones or Blackberries. Entirely online high schools are proliferating. Partly these moves are justified by the respective authorities in terms of preparing students for the cyber university, but no doubt they are also partly responses to crises in education that see some states as performing particularly poorly in standardised testing, and to ongoing issues around recruitment and retention of quality teachers for disadvantaged students. While the affordances of connected classrooms and other networking technologies have proved very useful for Australian schools with small numbers of students in particular curriculum areas, or remote and rural schools, and for teacher professional learning, we are – thus far – untouched, as far as I know, by large scale relocations of learning from the ‘real’ to the virtual. The other insidious move that is apparent in the WSJ article is the corporate control of online learning, and through a sort of sleight-of-hand – by supplying services that under-resourced schools may be unable to deliver themselves – an incursion of for-profit companies into not-for-profit public schooling markets.

What about teachers in online schools? They are designers, presumably, of the learning materials that students are accessing on their various devices. At least the corporations are employing teachers, the article tells us. Teachers are built into the modules. One student reported that he listened to ‘most of’ an online lecture that ‘his’ English teacher was presenting, explaining the concept of a protagonist, to the 126 ninth graders who were logged for that session. I am unclear about when and where the teacher will be available to check their understanding and application of the concept to texts that they might be reading (except in a pre-prepared quiz or test) for that module. I suspect that next year’s students will hear the same voice and the same lecture that they hear this year. On the audio podcast there will be no signs of aging, no changes in mood, no changes in teacher. If the teacher is seconded to higher duties, takes leave or is hit by a bus, the students won’t suffer a casual or replacement who may not know them as well as their own teacher. But this teacher is unlikely to know them anyway. To give them their due however, some of the schools do offer email or phone support to students, though delays in response of up to three days are common, or ‘the occasional video conference’. Some offer field trips and live classrooms at a school building for students who prefer that – although most learning will still be online and self-directed. No doubt the profit margins are greatly enhanced when teacher salaries are minimised in the educational delivery equation. The article notes that one school district in Idaho sees the wholesale outsourcing of education to online providers as ‘a creative solution’ to the state’s budget crisis. Other inadvertent consequences of students, and the funding that follows them, shifting out of public schools includes the slashing of LOTE curriculum and cancellation of the school play. Results from these experiments in terms of improved student results are erratic.

It is clear that ICTs are transforming education. A recent mapping exercise we completed as part of the Strategic Secondary Education Research Program (SSERP) for Greater Western Sydney, a partnership between the University of Western Sydney and two large regions of the NSW Department of Education and Communities, found that ICTs and Web 2.0 technologies play ‘a fundamental role’ in planning, delivery and access to innovative educational programs. We plan to begin supporting a cluster of schools to research their practice in this area through 2012. These technologies were taken up within constructivist, collaborative, learning centred pedagogies, enabling new relationships between teachers and students, and extending teachers’ skills and knowledges. Teachers are not replaced by technologies but rather, effective and powerful use of technologies is reliant on teachers and how they are able to make best use of the affordances of technologies to enhance learning. My UWS colleague Jane Hunter’s recent blog entry on 21st Century Learning emphasises how innovative use of technologies is reliant on ‘imitable teachers’ – highly skilled, enthusiastic, imaginative, expert at integrating technologies seamlessly and purposively into classrooms – who can open up learning in classrooms. Jane’s research demonstrates that the teacher is the key.

I began writing this blog just as the new school year was beginning around Australia, and a day after watching the Four Corners program Revolution in the classroom. Anticipating the Gonski review of school funding, the program focused on school based management and drew comparisons between the relative autonomy experienced by private and public schools. However what struck me in the footage was, firstly, the uncompromising focus each school placed on teacher effectiveness and on student learning. Secondly, it was obvious that innovative leadership had created cultures of collaboration and critical reflexive practice in each of the schools, supported by coaching, mentoring and peer support programs for teachers at all stages of their careers and enabling teachers to research and evaluate their own practice. These were also characteristics of the innovative DEC secondary schools that we mapped in 2011 in Western and South Western Sydney, where many of these innovations were enabled by National Partnership funding. Finally, the other striking feature for me of the footage from each of the schools in the Four Corners program was the relationships that were evident between teachers and students. A year 9 student says that it is the ‘teacher-student relationship’ that has made all the difference: ‘it’s about the teacher understanding the student and the way they should be taught’. A year 12 student says that teachers ‘really care’, they’ve shown ‘massive support’ and have pushed and supported students to make sure that ‘you do the best that you can’. This is not a vague sort of ‘teacher-student relationship’ – although connection, respect, interest and engagement are all necessarily part of it – but it is a purposeful relationship that includes a focus on learning about each student and understanding their learning needs. Getting the best out of every student is the goal at each of the three schools that are profiled and this is premised on knowing each student not only through carefully analysed assessment strategies, that are then used to adjust pedagogy, but also on knowing the student as a particular and complex person. The focus on performance that was evident in the Four Corners program carries with it a risk, however, that the ‘tight coupling’ of education to teaching and learning outcomes that can be measured in mandated assessment and other data driven performance measures may reposition anything else as superfluous. The final scenes at the schools cut between the teacher calculating HSC bands and rankings relative to other schools to the warmth of her hug and ‘I’m so proud of you’ for the student who has transcended his ‘well below average’ record in English. An app will never do this.

The provocation of  ‘My teacher is an app…’ points to an ongoing need to maintain the emphasis on teacher quality as the crucial factor in student learning. Teacher quality is not an inherent characteristic of an individual, not a feature of personality, but an ongoing learning journey throughout a career. It is not solely an individual characteristic. Nor is it solely to do with cognitive domains. School leadership structures and an ethos of inquiry and collaboration that supports teachers to continue investigating and improving their practice alongside each other are crucial for this. Research I conducted in a sample of DEC English faculties in our region that had sustained good results in English Extension 2 indicated that strong and collaborative leadership with shared responsibility for improving student learning and teaching quality characterised these faculties. Interviews with high quality graduate English teachers in their first five years of teaching in a range of schools also suggested that the context of leadership in their school and faculty made the difference between their capacities to develop rapidly into effective and excellent teachers and to build the resilience and commitment to keep them within the profession. The most effective teachers are committed to their students as people and as learners and they are incorporating all sorts of technologies into the teaching and learning activities that they design for their students and they are opening spaces where students can surprise them with what they can do with technology. Despite the simulation of care that the voice of ‘Siri’ from an iphone might give, I don’t see any time soon when ‘My teacher is an app…’ will be any kind of solution to the complexities of contemporary education.

Susanne Gannon is an Associate Professor of Education at UWS. She is Director of Programs for Adult and Postgraduate Education and Academic Course Adviser for the Master of Education (Leadership). She loves her ipad and is a great fan of many apps including i-university, however she is increasingly annoyed by the spamming of her faculty by emails marketing poor quality apps for teacher education, and remains wary about the erratic quality of many educational apps. She is involved in a number of ICT innovations in teacher education, including the national Teaching Teachers for the Future Project and a laptop trial project at UWS. She is a member of the SSERP project team at UWS. She is also the current editor of the journal English in Australia, the next issue of which focuses on English teaching and new technologies (guest edited by Kelli McGraw and Scott Bulfin). The views expressed in this opinion piece are entirely personal and do not represent those of the School of Education at UWS.

Making mathematics relevant: Putting the ‘home’ back into mathematics homework February 12, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education.
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from Dr Catherine Attard

In this post Catherine Attard provides insight into how mathematics homework can be structured to enhance learning engagement and relevance for our young people.

The start of a new school year is a perfect time to reflect on and perhaps make adjustments to the pedagogical practices we use in our day-to-day teaching of mathematics. If our goal is to produce successful learners of mathematics and students who choose to continue the study of mathematics beyond the mandatory years, then we need to ensure our students are engaged and motivated to learn both within and beyond the classroom. The purpose of this post is to argue that if we need to set mathematics homework, it should reflect ‘best’ practice and should provide students with opportunities to extend their learning in ways that highlight the relevance of mathematics in their lives outside school while practising and applying mathematical concepts learned within the classroom.

The pedagogical practices employed within mathematics classrooms cover a broad spectrum that ranges from ‘traditional’, text book based lessons, to more contemporary constructivist approaches that include rich problem solving and investigation based lessons, or a combination of both. When asked to recall a typical mathematics lesson, many people cite a traditional, teacher-centred approach in which a routine of teacher demonstration, student practice using multiple examples from a text book, and then further multiple, text book generated questions are provided for homework (Even & Tirosh, 2008; Goos, 2004; Ricks, 2009). When over used, traditional, teacher-centred approaches have been found to result in low levels of motivation and engagement among students (Boaler, 2009), and although there is an abundance of research that promotes a more constructivist, student-centred approach, one study found traditional practices continue to dominate, occurring more often than student-centred approaches in mathematics education (McKinney, Cappell, Berry, & Hickman, 2009).

If many teachers are continuing to teach in such way, then it is likely that many set mathematics homework that continues to be repetitious and merely a provision of further practice of concepts learned during lessons.

While it is critical that students are provided with many opportunities to practice mathematical concepts learned at school, perhaps we need to consider how homework can be structured so that it is motivating, engaging, challenging, and most importantly, relevant. One of the most common complaints from students with regard to mathematics education is the lack of relevance to their lives outside the school. It is an expectation of today’s students that learning is meaningful and makes sense to them (Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, 2009; NSW Department of Education and Training, 2003). There needs to be a directional shift in the way we establish relevance and applicability in mathematical engagement because the type of mathematics that students use outside school is often radically different in content and approach to the mathematics they encounter in school (Lowrie, 2004). Homework provides the perfect opportunity for students to make connections between school mathematics and ‘home’ mathematics.

So what would motivating, engaging, challenging and relevant mathematics homework look like?  That all depends on you and your imagination! When I was a Year 6 classroom teacher, one of the most popular homework activities amongst my students was based on Tony Ryan’s Thinker’s Keys. Students were provided with a range of activities that included an element of choice. Each activity was much more creative than a typical mathematics task yet provided challenge for students and an opportunity for them to apply their understandings of mathematical concepts. For example, in a range of activities based on multiplication and division, one of the tasks, the Question Key, required students to respond to the following prompt: How is multiplication related to division? Write an explanation appropriate for a Year 4 child. Use an example to show how multiplication is related to division. The Brainstorming Key required students to make links to real-life: Brainstorm examples of everyday situations that require you to use multiplication and division. Record your responses in a mind map.

Another great idea for homework with younger students is to have them take photographs of their home environment that directly relate to the mathematics being learned at school. For example, in a study of 3D objects, students can photograph and label 3D objects found in their homes. Students can draw floor plans of their homes when learning about scale, position, area and perimeter. At a higher level, students can solve real-life problems that require the application of a number of mathematical concepts such as selecting the best mobile phone plan, comparison of household bills, budgeting, etc.

How much work would be involved in planning this type of homework? One approach to planning homework tasks is to work within stage/grade teams to design a bank of tasks that could be re-used from one year to another. As with many things, once you begin to plan and design rich homework tasks, it gets easier. Often ideas also come from the students. Consider tasks that vary in length from quick, one-day homework tasks to longer term tasks that may take two or three weeks from students to complete. Also consider your priority: quality or quantity?

How hard would it be to assess and provide feedback on homework tasks? If we expect students to engage with and complete their mathematics homework, then we must provide constructive feedback. In my previous research on student engagement with mathematics, some students were frustrated when their teacher did not mark homework: “If they don’t give you feedback then you don’t know if you’re doing it right or wrong, or if you need improving or anything.” Marking and providing feedback on homework should not be viewed as a burden but rather a critical part of the teaching and learning process. The way feedback is delivered depends on the nature of the task.

Finally, when setting homework, we need to reflect on our purpose for doing so. Are we doing it to keep the parents happy and the students busy, or do we want to support students’ learning in a seamless link between school and home, providing opportunities for students to apply concepts in real-world situations?

References:    Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers. (2009). School mathematics for the 21st century: Some key influences. Adelaide, S.A.: AAMT Inc.   Boaler, J. (2009). The elephant in the classroom: Helping children learn and love maths. London: Souvenir Press Ltd.   Even, R., & Tirosh, D. (2008). Teacher knowledge and understanding of students’ mathematical learning and thinking. In L. D. English (Ed.), Handbook of international research in mathematics education (2nd ed., pp. 202-222). New York: Routledge.   Goos, M. (2004). Learning mathematics in a classroom community of inquiry. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 35(4), 258-291.   Lowrie, T. (2004, 4-5 December). Making mathematics meaningful, realistic and personalised: Changing the direction of relevance and applicability. Paper presented at the Mathematical Association of Victoria Annual Conference 2004: Towards Excellence in Mathematics, Monash University, Clayton, Vic.   McKinney, S., Cappell, S., Berry, R. Q., & Hickman, B. T. (2009). An examination of the instructional practices of mathematics teachers in urban schools. Preventing School Failure, 53(4), 278-284.   NSW Department of Education and Training. (2003). Quality Teaching in NSW Public Schools. Sydney: Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate.   Ricks, T. E. (2009). Mathematics is motivating. The Mathematics Educator, 19(2), 2-9.

Catherine Attard is a Lecturer in the primary education program in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has written several other posts on mathematics education and learning on this blog . These other posts are searchable by writing ‘Attard’ in the search tool at top right.

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