Formative Assessment (Part 2) and A Case for Differentiated Instruction

I started this post as a case for differentiated instruction, but as I wrote it, I realised it was also very much about formative assessment. So, this is part two in my series on  formative assessment where I blog my journey through Dylan Wiliams’  book, Embedded Formative Assessment and share my and my school’s change journey.

Recently, quite a few blog posts and articles have been popping up in my feeds making a case against differentiated instruction. They’re powerful and convincing posts backed up with a lot of research evidence.

So, it’s perhaps arrogant of me to dare to disagree, given that I haven’t researched it myself. What I do have instead, is 20 years of teaching, observing, evaluating and reflecting on the effectiveness of my practice, and I would argue that dismissing the validity of that is also rather arrogant. (In fact, as an aside, has anyone else noticed how teacher’s are being listened to less and less? It’s as if our professional expertise aren’t worth anything if we don’t have a PhD!)

Mug from Moorland Pottery

Mug from Moorland Pottery

The argument against differentiation seems to be that there is no evidence of impact and that most teachers don’t do it because it is, in fact an impossible ask. In some instances it leads to lower outcomes because teachers set the bar too low, and don’t allow all students the opportunity to do the more challenging work. Therefore, we should back away from the whole idea as it doesn’t work, it’s so difficult it’s unachievable and it’s stressing teachers out.

Well, in spite of what the research apparently tells us,  I’m not turning my back on the practice.

As a primary school teacher, my classes are mixed ability.  My last Year 2 class had a student who entered as a non-reader and a non-writer. He only knew a few letters of the alphabet. I also had a group of English language learners in that class including some new arrivals. And then I had about 5 students who were extraordinarily capable. They were reading and spelling at a level more typical of 12 year olds, had impressive vocabularies and were enthusiastic writers.

If I gave the whole class the standard Year 2 work, my non-reader and writer would have floundered. He would have been constantly reminded that he was not good enough. He could perhaps retain some dignity if he copied from another student’s book, to at least appear to be working at the class level, but his experience would have been one of daily failure.

Similarly, if I insisted that my cluster of very talented students were to work at a Year 2 level, they would have coasted. They had already mastered the phonics and spelling curriculum that for most of my students required explicit teaching. They would have handed in bland, formulaic writing which achieved all the basic Year 2 standards on our marking rubric. They would have learned that they did not need to learn, that success comes easily. That challenge was only experienced by students with less ability than them.

I differentiate my lessons because if I didn’t, I couldn’t possibly be as effective a teacher. I’m  not prepared to rob my students of the best education I can offer just because its hard.

It is hard.

It’s also rewarding.

Differentiation does not have to mean planning different lessons for every student. For me, differentiation is about knowing where each of my students are at (see my earlier post on formative assessment) and setting explicit goals with them to move them forward in the context of each lesson.

Here is a simple example. When teaching persuasive writing I might assign the whole class the same topic, but the goal for each student is different.

My student  just learning to read and write would dictate his line of argument and three supporting statements either to me, to an aide, or as a voice memo on the iPad. He would then hear it back, and slowly record it in writing. His goal at the start of the year was to write one complete simple sentence on the topic using a capital letter and a full-stop. As the year progressed, we increased the number of sentences he was to write, and added other features such as conjunctions. The goals were explicit and we recorded his progress on a little chart. We kept copies of his work so he could look back and compare his later performance to where he was at the beginning of the year. He did not require a separate lesson, and supporting him in this way was not difficult. All it required was a knowledge of where he was at, and then working out his next step. He had a sense of pride and achievement, and was able to participate fully in the class program, but at a level that was appropriate and would move his learning forward.

My cluster of high achievers did not miss out. We would conference together and set goals for their writing as well. They were challenged to use different sentence structures and to vary the way they opened their sentences. They had to elaborate more and were challenged to use metaphors and analogy in their writing. Again, they were working on the same task, but they had specific goals, negotiated with them,  to move them forward.

Goals weren’t only for the students at the higher and lower ends of my class. All my students were working towards their own goals which were determined through clear, specific feedback and negotiation.

I did not have to work hard to plan different learning experiences for each of my students to differentiate a lesson. What I did have to do was provide effective feedback, and co-create learning goals which would move students forward. It was effective teaching, my students not only progressed well in writing. They also became empowered learners. They understood their goals and took responsibility for tracking and working towards them. My students not were not only learning how to write, they were learning how to learn.


Formative Assessment – Part 1 (Introduction)

This is part one in my series on  Formative Assessment where I blog my journey through Dylan Wiliams’  book, Embedded Formative Assessment and share my and my school’s change journey.

Back in the mid 90’s, formative assessment was a prominent part of the  practice at the school I worked for. There seemed to be a big push to develop effective and time efficient strategies that would allow us to know where our students were at, set goals and keep moving them forward in their learning.

But 20 years later at my current school, there is a twice yearly struggle as teachers attempt to get accurate assessment information to formally report on their students’ performance.

I see the tiredness and the stress in my colleagues, and the unsustainable hours that they put into this twice yearly process. At times I worry that some of them are about to break under the stress. There has to be a better way.


I’d like to see formative assessment become embedded in our school practice. Assessment shouldn’t be an event. It needs to happen continually and it needs to inform our teaching. Only by knowing where each of our students are ‘at’ are we able to plan appropriate learning experiences which will move them forward.

My own experience with using formative assessment to inform learning has taught me that it requires careful planning, careful teaching, regular feedback and efficient record keeping. It needs to become embedded  in our work flow rather than being an add-on. And,  it requires thorough curriculum knowledge so that we can harness the teachable moments that arise throughout the day.

It’s also a practice I’ve found hard to maintain. I’ve developed my own systems and techniques but they haven’t been sustainable long-term.  I always start the year well, and have good periods of time within the school year where I’m managing this process well, but there are also long periods where that hasn’t been the case.

I’d like to develop a  more sustainable practice, and I’d like to support my colleagues in developing these practices too. In the hope of achieving this, I’ve started reading Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam and thought I’d blog my progress, a little like an online reading journal.

Wiliam says in the introduction to his book that he wrote it with two purposes in mind:

1. To provide simple, practical ideas about changes that very teacher can make in the classroom to develop his or her practice of teaching.

2. To provide the evidence that these changes will result in improved outcomes for learners.

And that is exactly what I’m after: simple, practical evidence based strategies that will improve learning outcomes.

I’ll blog about Chapter One in the next post of this series.

Read Formative Assessment (Part 2) A Case for Differentiated Instruction here

The Problem with Promises


I got little carried away with promises last year. My teaching load had changed from standard classroom teaching to a new role, part of which involved running enrichment programs for students across our school, an initiative funded by our parent body, the P&C.

I was excited about the enrichment programs. I was planning to run projects that had real products at the end of them.  One of these was a fortnightly or monthly news program covering events at our school. I shared this vision with the P&C and they were  impressed. The students involved were excited as well.

However, for all sorts of reasons, I wasn’t able to deliver what I’d promised.

We were beset with technical problems. It was frustrating as I’d run a similar project on a smaller scale the year before without any issues, so I’d been confident that we had the technical capacity to deliver this larger scale project.

I also found the students didn’t have the entry skills I’d expected. They initially found it very challenging to construct a report on a local event. Their early videos often looked like holiday slide shows – disconnected footage of scenes from the event, but with no explanatory narrative, and no logical sequencing of ideas. It took several edits and re-edits before some of the reports were ready to broadcast and, as we only met once a week, for some students it took an entire term to create a single report.

And there were my own personal issues that got in the way. For the first time in years, I had to take several days sick leave. I injured my shoulder at the beginning of the year, which led to days off work and limited mobility for weeks. Half way through the year, I was struck down with a severe bout of flu which had me incapacitated for more weeks. Often I wasn’t replaced on those absences, as my role was above establishment, and a number of my programs were quite difficult to pass on to a casual teacher in my absence.

I’d also underestimated the impact that only seeing a group for once session a week would have. When I ran a similar project with my class the previous year, they were able to keep working on it at odd times during the week. I also spent much more time building their understanding of the genre, de-constructing and jointly constructing video reports before asking the students to create them independently. Last year, I was feeling the time pressure of only one session per week, so tried to take short cuts which actually slowed us down.

The project wasn’t a failure. We compiled all the reports the students had filmed into a one-off Year in Review program. There were still a few refinements I would have liked to see, but over all, their product was good. Their report structures became tight and more cohesive, and many of their narrations and interviews were impressive.  They had learned a lot, developed some great skills and put together a great program that we broadcast to the school in the final week.

The problem was, I’d promised too much at the outset. Since it fell so far short of the initial plan to make a fortnightly or monthly news show, it felt like a failure. I felt it, and it  was evident that the students felt it too, because they kept referring to the fact we hadn’t achieved our goal of putting it out regularly. I tried to remain positive, and help the students see that we hadn’t failed, we were problem solving and rethinking our design to fit the constraints. We were being resilient and flexible. But deep down, I wasn’t proud, the Year in Review felt almost like an apology. We couldn’t deliver what we’d promised and it seemed like a consolation prize.

Promise Little Deliver Much

I happened to be speaking with one of our education directors last year who told me that in her work she always promises little but aims to deliver a lot. Those words were extremely pertinent.  If I’d promised that we were doing  a Year in Review program from the outset, we would have been happy with our work. Instead, because I promised too much, I felt the weight of the expectations, and our failure to meet them all year. It was hard to see our successes because we weren’t meeting  the expectations I’d created at the beginning of the year.

This year, I’ll be running projects again, but I’ll go about them differently. In my planning, I’ll be aiming high, but scaling things down to see what the minimum best possible outcome could be. To the students and their parents, I’ll promise a little, the part I know can be delivered. That way our successes will be recognised for what they are, and if we deliver even more, then we can really celebrate.

Thoughts on Flow, Classroom Noise and Strange Dichotomies

I’ve been pondering the judgements we sometimes make as to what constitutes good teaching.

Years ago, a quiet classroom was seen as an indicator of effective teaching, good classroom management and student engagement. Now increasingly a quiet classroom is seen as an indicator of poor teaching, where the students are managed by fear, are compliant, not engaged and are learning to regurgitate facts rather than be critical, analytical and creative.

The reality is of course, quite different. In my previous post I wrote about how a beautiful meditative silence spread across my class as they became immersed in an art activity. This had nothing to do with compliance and wasn’t a requirement of my lesson. It had everything to do with engagement and flow.

What Kind of Teacher are You-

The concept of flow was developed by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and refers to a state of single minded immersion in a task, where time seems to stand still, and the awareness of anything outside of that task disappears. It’s a state of being worth aspiring to, and often in discussions about modern teaching we talk about creating educational experiences that will help students to find their flow.

My personal experiences of flow have related to music and art. In my younger years I was an enthusiastic painter and aspiring artist. One of my favourite pass times was to set up a canvas and paint  in my living room. I would quickly enter a state of flow, where the only thing I was aware of was the paint and the canvas. The constant chatter in my brain would fade away, as would my awareness of everything in my environment. I would forget to eat or drink. All that existed was me, my paintbrush, palette and canvas. Hours would pass in an instant, yet it felt as if time was standing still. When I’d attempt a challenging part of my painting and find the way to achieve the effect I wanted, I’d feel flooded with an incredible sense of elation.

I don’t believe I could have experienced that state of flow if I was engaged in dialogue with others.  My state of flow either produced or grew out of intense focus,  an internal and very personal psychological state.

And so I’m somewhat perplexed by the recent tendency to assume that a quiet classroom equals a compliant but disengaged classroom, and a classroom characterised by discussion and noise equals an engaged classroom. Sometimes the moments of deepest engagement are quiet moments.

I’d like us to look a little deeper. In my own teaching practice, quiet and noise are means to an end. Quiet sometimes emerges unexpectedly as children become immersed in activities. I’ve noticed its unbidden arrival in a range of activities including coding, where my students have  immersed in creating scripts (one of my chattiest students exclaimed , “Ms Campbell I’m so interested in this, I just can’t talk!”) , in art, in some mathematical tasks requiring great concentration and in writing.  At other times I will require students to work quietly because I know that they need that time of quiet reflection and concentration to process and think about their activity.

On many occasions, noise is a far more effective means to an end. In my coding classes, which as I mentioned are sometimes characterised by a quiet state of flow, I have to urge my students to pull themselves away from the screen and to work collaboratively with others. The tasks they are attempting are challenging, and there is not always a clear path to a solution. I’m not an expert and we are learning to code together, so I require my students to check in with each other, share their discoveries, build on them and work collaboratively to solve problems. Noise, discussion and collaboration are the most effective means for us to achieve success.

The quiet versus noisy classroom   is just one example of the misleading dichotomies we buy into in modern education. But looking at education through such a polarised lens can be a little superficial and unhelpful. Perhaps we use these as evidence of effective teaching because they are easily observed, but they deny the complexity of our work. Let’s resist the modern tendency to reduce education to what can be easily measured.

Knowledge builds a fence around learning

I’ve been struggling to put down my thoughts from Edutech. I saw so many great keynotes, all of which challenged my thinking and even better, offered me ideas that are helping me to map a route for change and improvement at my school. For now, here is one of the thought bubbles that I had during the conference, which I think will shape what I do in the future.

Knowledge builds a fence around learning.

Sugata Mitra and Tom Barrett both spoke about the difficulties with knowing things. When children, who had never seen a computer before asked Mitra what it was, during his famous Hole in the Wall study, he answered ‘I don’t know’. This set the children upon an amazing path of exploration and learning which is revolutionising the way we think about the role of learners and the role of the teacher. They learned far more than anyone had predicted. If Mitra had answered their questions, they would no longer have been curious, and the learning would not have occurred.

Barrett touched on this in his keynote about Creativity in the Australian curriculum. In a world where information is immediately accessible, we need to be discerning in the way we use that access. When students ask ‘What is it?’ or ‘How does it work?’ they could use a search engine to find an answer. Or they could explore, speculate, theorise and experiment, allowing deeper learning and the potential for curiosity to spark inquiry in all sorts of unexpected directions.

Mitra saw in his work that rather than answering children’s questions with knowledge, it is better to answer them with encouragement. Instead of responding to student work with statements like, ‘That’s not right’, he suggested answering with:

‘If you do it again, will you get the same result?’

‘Is there a chance that is not right?’

And instead of responding to the ‘What is it?’ questions with facts, respond with ‘I don’t know’.

In our role of teachers, we want to support our students in their learning journey. We often feel we are helping when we provide knowledge and answers. But to fan the flames of curiosity that will drive learning, we need to be discerning in when and how we do this, because the moment we feel we KNOW something,  we stop wondering, and its that sense of wonder that drives a love of learning.

PBL with Year 2, Project 3: A Review Website

Year Two’s final project for the year was centred around the review and response text types. Like many schools in NSW, we spend several weeks each term focusing on specific text types from the NSW English Syllabus. New syllabi to support the Australian Curriculum will be implemented next year and I expect that our approach to writing will change, but, in the final term of 2013, we were still obliged to continue on as we had been doing.

We wanted to use a Project Based Learning approach to bring a real purpose and authenticity to the work our students would be doing. We also wanted to gain experience in  incorporating multi-modal texts as these need to be treated quite considerably in the new syllabus that we will implement in 2014.

When our team started planning, it was initially quite hard to think of a good project, but as our discussion moved on, things started to fall into place. The ideas began flowing when we considered how we as adults use reviews in our own lives. We realised that of course, we use them all the time when finding out about movies we’d like to see, restaurants we want to visit, products we like to buy and so forth. In fact, they are one of the most useful text types because they help us to make good decisions about how to spend our time and money. We also realised in our discussion that usually when we as adults look for reviews, we either watch them on TV or search for them on the net.

At this point, the project we would work on with our classes became obvious: we would have each class create a website containing video and written reviews. The reviews would be of activities that they enjoy doing over summer and it would be a resource to help each other make good choices about how to spend their time. This ticked all the boxes for us. We would use multi-model texts such as television review shows and websites for our modelled texts. It would allow our students plenty of choice in terms of what they chose to review, and it would allow them to work creatively in teams. They would still have to satisfy the writing requirements of the text type, by writing a well constructed blog post to accompany each video. As a further bonus, it would give us a meaningful purpose for using the iPads which had just arrived in our school. We were excited to have them, but still getting our heads around how to incorporate them into our teaching and learning program.

Project 3: A Review Website

Duration: 9 weeks

Driving Question: How can we make good choices about what we read, watch and do? How can we help others to make good choices?

Public Audience:  A world audience, but a target audience of other Y2 classes, friends and families.

Significant Content: As we planned this unit, we realised it covered content from just about every area of the new English syllabus. These were the outcomes we identified.

English K-10

  • EN11A communicates with a range of people in informal and guided activities demonstrating interaction skills and considers how own communication is adjusted in different situations
  • EN12A plans, composes and reviews a small range of simple texts for a variety of purposes on familiar topics for known readers and viewers
  • EN13A composes texts using letters of consistent size and slope and uses digital technologies
  • EN14A draws on an increasing range of skills and strategies to fluently read, view and comprehend a range of texts on less familiar topics in different media and technologies
  • EN16B recognises a range of purposes and audiences for spoken language and recognises organisational patterns and features of predictable spoken texts
EN17B identifies how language use in their own writing differs according to their purpose, audience and subject matter

EN18B recognises that there are different kinds of texts when reading and viewing and shows an awareness of purpose, audience and subject matter

EN19B uses basic grammatical features, punctuation conventions and vocabulary appropriate to the type of text when responding to and composing texts

EN110C thinks imaginatively and creatively about familiar topics, ideas and texts when responding to and composing texts

EN111D responds to and composes a range of texts about familiar aspects of the world and their own experiences

EN112E identifies and discusses aspects of their own and others’ learning

What we did:

I introduced the driving question right at the start of the unit, and then looked at some review websites with our classes. I chose to use Good Game SP as our exemplar text.  After watching some video reviews we made a list of features that were common to each one:

  • Title
  • Summarised the story
  • Discussed good and bad elements
  • Recommended an audience
  • Provided a rating
  • Were supported by a written blog

These became the essential elements that the students would include in their reviews.

We also noted the features that made the videos good to watch. Some of the features we identified included:

  • Humour
  • Interesting and varied camera angles
  • Vocal expression

I then asked the class to brainstorm some possible topics for our reviews. Many wanted to review video games, since that was the model they had observed, but eventually our list grew to include indoor and outdoor games, craft activities and books. A number of students were desperate to review different types of pets. I was reluctant at first, because I didn’t think it really suited our topic of choosing activities for the summer holidays. However,  in the end I relented as they explained it would help other children decide if they wanted to get a similar pet themselves.

We spent the next couple of weeks working on written book reviews. I explained that they needed to understand how to structure their writing so that when it came to writing their blog posts, they would be able to post something that was well written and that they could be proud of. The upcoming project gave a sense of urgency to this task and I found my students were very engaged and tried hard to improve their writing, responding well to critical feedback. To give the writing exercises an even greater sense of purpose, we used school library books as our subjects. Each student had to write a  review of a library book which would be kept in our library to help other children choose a good book.

We also spent some time familiarising ourselves with the iPads and iMovie. While most of my students had used iPads before, none of them had used iMovie. We spent time making book trailers and reviews of parts of our school. For the students, there was no risk of failure in this activity. They weren’t being evaluated at all, it was just about exploring and figuring out what works well.

We learned all sorts of things by having a few weeks to just explore and experiment with iMovie. We discovered that if you put your hand over the microphone it muffles the sound. We also learned that if you stand too far away from the iPad, the microphone doesn’t pick up your voice. After viewing several student movies, we discovered that shorter clips worked better than long takes, and that if the movie involved someone just talking to the camera, it was more interesting to watch if the talk was broken up, perhaps by providing different backgrounds or camera angles. We discovered how to use subtitles, background music and voice overs, and we also discovered that if not used well, these could be very distracting and ruin, rather than improve the movie. And we learned to be aware of what was happening in the background. Images of other groups of children making movies or playing sport in the distance was distracting.

While initially, I wanted the final assessment pieces to be made in groups, I ended up having each student write their own review individually, but they had to create the video in a group. After each student submitted a well constructed written review, and I had checked it, they then had to plan their video by creating a story board. Each frame in the story board had to show what the camera would film, as well as the script, and any subtitles, music or voice over information.

Once I had checked these, they were free to make their movies. At this point, I became redundant. My students had developed enough know-how to work on their films completely independently and the final products were often a complete surprise to me. My role became that of a facilitator. I’d assist students who weren’t sure how to edit part of their movie, and answer questions here and there, but for the most part, the students did all the work while I supported and encouraged them.


I started encountering problems when I tried to upload videos to the website. I’d created a new blog for the project using the Edublogs platform and had the students choose the design and the name. But with 3 weeks to go before the end of the term our videos wouldn’t upload. At first I thought it might have had something to do with the file type, so instead of trying to upload again, I created a Vimeo account from which I could embed the videos. That in itself took time. Creating the account required an email account, so I had to create a class Gmail as well. After taking a few days to sort all that out and uploading my first few videos to Vimeo, they still wouldn’t embed on the website. This, I eventually discovered was because I needed a Pro account with Edublogs, which annoyed me as I already had a Pro account for my class blog. I assumed, wrongly, that would cover any blogs I created.

With one week left, I finally bit the bullet and paid for a Pro account. Now that I was able to embed videos, I started to upload the rest of them to Vimeo, but I hit another obstacle: my free Vimeo account would only allow me to upload a limited number of videos each week and I reached that limit before I’d uploaded even half of the class’s videos.

However, at least, by the end of the year, we had a number of their video and blog posts published.

Here is an example of one I was really pleased with. I love the different camera angles, the use of titles and the vocal expression.

I’ll be updating the site with the rest of their videos and posts over the holidays. You can find our website here.


All in all, I thought the project was a great success. The quality of their written reviews for the website was not nearly as high as the quality of their written reviews for our school library, but given the fact that their library reviews were so good, I was still pleased with the outcomes of the writing program.

I was delighted with the videos they made. These were entirely the students’ own work and they’d made so much progress. They were thinking critically about their movies, constantly editing and improving them until they had a product of which they were proud.

If I was to do this again, however, I wouldn’t use Edublogs as a platform. It was frustrating to have to pay for features which come for free on other platforms such as Weebly and WordPress. My colleague, Joel was very happy with using Weebly for his class project. You can visit 2A’s review website here.

This is the fourth in my series on Project Based Learning. For more,visit my Project Based Learning page or view the articles below.

Related articles

PBL with Year 2, Project 2: Improving our Playground

One of my goals for 2013 was to use Project Based Learning as a strategy to bring about greater student engagement by making learning more meaningful and authentic. Together with my team of Year Two teachers, we developed four projects for our classes. Our first project was a school fair which I wrote about here.

After the success of that project, I was eager to move forward and develop a larger project for Term 2.  We decided to use the NSW HSIE syllabus as our starting point.

The unit we developed touched on outcomes in all four strands:  Social Systems and Structures, Change and Continuity,  Cultures and Environments, but had a particular emphasis on Environments. We decided to use our school playground as a focus and develop the idea of custodianship, with students developing plans to  improve our grounds and make them more amenable for current and future students.

Project 2: Improving our Playground

Duration: 8 Weeks

Driving Question: How can we improve the amenity of our playground?

Public Audience: Current and future users of the school grounds

Significant Content:

Our planned outcomes and indicators came from the Environments strand of the NSW HSIE syllabus.

ENS1.5 Compares and contrasts natural and built features in their local area and the ways in which people interact with these features.
ENS1.6 Demonstrates an understanding of the relationship between environments and people

Students will

  • identify differences between natural and built features of the school playground
  • categorise places in the school grounds: where people work, eat, play, are active or passive, animal habitats etc.
  • express an awareness of how the school grounds exist within a broader context: e.g as a natural habitat and as a community facility.
  • recognise Aboriginal people’s’ special relationship with the school grounds
  • identify ways in which the school environment has changed and is continuing to change
  • suggest ways of caring for the school environment and ways in which they can contribute
  • identify an aspect of the school environment which can be easily improved, make a simple plan to improve it, and carry out that plan.
  • Reflect on the effectiveness of the improvement projects and devise a strategy for long-term, sustained improvement.

However, as the project progressed, content from other Key Learning Areas was also included. My students were involved in measuring and drawing birds-eye view plans of areas of our playground and wrote expositions to support their proposals.

What we did:

Introducing the Project:

To begin, I took my class on a tour of the school grounds, they brought with them clipboards, paper and pencils and stopping in various areas made a mind map. The centre of each mind map contained the words “Our School” and branches growing out from the centre included prompts such as I see, I hear, I feel, I like, I don’t like.

We brought the mind maps back into the classroom, and using butchers paper and post it notes, created a class version that contained everyone’s ideas.


After compiling the mind map, I explained to the students that they would be spending the term learning about the school grounds and be put in charge of running some projects to make them even better.

As a reflection I asked students to think of up to 3 improvements they would like to make in the school playground and to briefly write about these.

Providing a context:

Before moving any further with the projects I wanted to develop some contextual knowledge for my students. We spent the next two weeks developing an understanding of our land’s heritage and the notion of custodianship.

1. Heritage

Over a number of days, I shared the book ‘My Place‘ by Nadia Wheatley which was written to celebrate Australian’s bicentenary in 1988. Each page contains a story of children living in Sydney and it goes back in time, with a new story for each decade. The children live on the same land and often in the same house, so as the book moves back through time the history of Sydney is revealed. It takes us all the way back to the Aboriginal owners of the land.

Using the book as a stimulus, I asked my students to consider how our school land had changed over time what changes had they observed recently and what changes would have occurred over time all the way back to  1788?

We also considered who owns our land?  We talked about the original owners and why it is important we acknowledge them, and we talked about what we have inherited from the lands original owners.

I then moved the discussion on to speculate about how our land might be used in the future and what changes, good or bad, might occur.

2. Custodianship

To introduce the notion  of custodianship, I shared the book ‘Belonging’ by Jeannie Baker. It has a similar theme to ‘My Place’, but in this case, each page moves us forward through time.  The book begins with a view through a window across a very desolate, urban landscape with pollution, graffiti and rubbish. As the book moves through time, you can see the environment being restored: trees are planted, a park is created, murals are painted on walls. By the end of the book, the view is of a thriving and cheerful urban community. It has an empowering message showing how people can make a difference to the world around them.

After discussing the book, we talked about our school land.  I introduced the term ‘stakeholder; and we brainstormed the different community uses of our land. We also considered the different wildlife that make our school grounds their home.

I then  introduced the word ‘custodians’ and we discussed how we could be good custodians of our land.

Planning the project

In week 4, we were ready to begin planning our project:

Defining amenity, I introduced the driving question: How can we improve the amenity of our playground?

In a shady corner of the grounds with some tall gum trees and a sandpit, students observed and explored, discussing what they liked, what worked well, and what might be improved.

Back in the classroom we discussed their ideas. With out exception, the students all decided that our sand pit was not working well at all, and needed an overhaul. (Isn’t it great when you get the results from the discussion you were hoping for!)

We decided to make improving the amenity of our sandpit our focus, and the students made various suggestions, some more realistic than others for how we might do that.

Over the following weeks we started to make our plan. We returned to the sandpit and tested it out.

A number of my students were actually repelled when I suggested they might play in it. They didn’t want to because the sand was dirty and full of leaves and twigs.  Those who were brave enough to venture in started to dig, but after only a few centimetres, met hard ground. While they were exploring the sandpit, a group of students managed to excavate a little wooden bridge: it turned out we didn’t have one sandpit, but two divided by the bridge.

This experience made for  a great discussion. It was obvious that we needed to do something about the shallow, dirty sand. Proposals included buying new sand, but other students worried that it would just wash out of the sand pit again in a down pour. Some suggested building a roof over the top of the sandpit to stop the twigs and leaves falling into it, others suggested cutting down the trees that surround it.  A few observed that part of the problem was some of the sands stone rocks that formed an edge around the sandpit had been removed, or large gaps between them where children had dug tunnels. This was causing the sand to wash out.

Bringing in the expert

Not having any landscaping experience myself, it was time to bring in an expert.  I recruited the help of a landscape architect, Paul, who used to have children at our school, and had been responsible for a lot of our grounds work in the past. He now works for us one day per week as a general assistant.

We needed to wait a couple of weeks before Paul was available to help us. In the meantime, my students drew plans of the sandpit area and wrote expositions giving reasons to support their various proposals for change.

When Paul was finally available, we were running out of time. There were only two weeks of term left. We returned to the sand pit with Paul and he put my students to work, using trundle wheels and tape measures to provide measurements that he put into an architectural plan for us. The students explained their suggestions and he advised on the viability of the various plans. In the end, we decided that we needed to redesign the sandpit to make it slightly larger and deeper.  Paul advised that a wooden edge would be best, made out of recycled timber.  He also recommended removal of a couple of smaller shrubs. We would need to buy new sand, get a sandpit cover, and, if money permitted, some sandpit toys to help make the area more fun.

Now that we had our plan, we needed to make it happen, and that was going to be the focus of our Term 3 PBL which would focus on how we could raise funds to pay for the work and supplies that were needed.  My students were very excited by this proposition and started coming up with fundraising ideas such as lemonade stands in their front yards or making thousands of origami cranes to sell.

Abandoning the Project

Unfortunately none of the fundraising plans came to fruition. Our school principal went on leave in Term 3, so I spent most of the first half of term off class as relieving principal. I felt the project was really too big for the casual teacher who took over my class to take on, and I was so busy with principal work that I couldn’t continue it in the background.

Then, I had an intern take over my class for the second half of term. (I did very little teaching at all in Term 3). My intern had almost full-time responsibility for the class and  some specific course requirements to complete.  She wasn’t confident taking this on and I didn’t want to push her. PBL was my professional goal but it didn’t have to be hers, and she was working hard just coming to terms with day-to-day teaching and classroom management.

I also realised, that as much as I wanted to run a fundraiser with my class, there were already several fundraising events happening at my school during the term and the community was feeling quite fatigued by all the requests for money. I’d considered the idea of putting on a fair, similar to the one we ran in Term 1, however our Year 6 students were already planning a similar event to raise money for their farewell gift to the school.

And so, reluctantly, I abandoned that project. It just wasn’t feasible to pursue it in Term 4.


Even though we didn’t get to put our plans into action, I was still very pleased with the learning that occurred. My students were engaging in critical thinking and real life problem solving. They also developed a sense of social responsibility, considering the impact  on all stakeholders when planning for change. They demonstrated the understandings I was targeting in the Environments strand of HSIE, looking at the relationships and interactions between people and the environment.

Their exposition writing was excellent. They were able to clearly articulate their reasons for improving the sandpit with great supporting arguments. And I loved seeing them have an authentic purpose for their mapping and measurement skills in maths.

I learned that it is possible to take on too much and that I need to plan far more carefully. I was so in love with the idea of this project that I didn’t consider all the logistical issues. With more planning, I think we could have pulled this off. I had always expected that we would need to fundraise for whatever improvement we decided to make, and I had mentioned that to my principal, however I really needed to discuss it with her in more depth and put the fundraiser into our calendar for Term 3.  I think if I had done that, we would have been able to move forward.

But I haven’t given up on this project. If possible, I’d still like to follow up with the same group of students in 2014 and organise that fundraiser so we can see our sandpit come back to life.

This is the third in my series on Project Based Learning. For more,visit my Project Based Learning page or view the articles below.