Rethinking Primary School Homework – ResearchED Sydney

Two years ago, my school began a process of rethinking primary school homework to develop a model aligned with research evidence. A year-long stakeholder consultation brought to the surface very strongly held views about the value and purpose of homework, some of which were surprising and shone a light onto the real impact of homework in the lives of modern Australian families within our catchment area.  Through the process of consultation a polarised community was able to find common ground and an agreed set of principles to guide the development of the new model for primary school homework.

I’ll be sharing findings of our stakeholder consultation at the  ResearchED conference to be held in Sydney on February 21 including,

  • the perceived value of homework for students, families and teachers
  • the impact of various types of homework on students, families and teachers
  • the misalignment between beliefs about homework effectiveness and what the research actually says  and,
  • the beginnings of our new model of primary school homework.

I have to confess to feeling nervous. I rarely speak in public to audiences beyond my school community and putting our work out there for public scrutiny is a little nerve-racking.

However, I decided that it would be good to get out of my comfort zone and so I agreed to appear. I just hope there’ll be some friendly faces in the crowd.

If you are a friendly face and haven’t secured your ticket to Research Ed yet, there’s still time, just follow this link.

Resources to Support Positive Education

Happiness is not something that only happens if we are lucky. We can learn skills to create conditions for happiness and we can teach those skills to our students so that they can thrive.

My latest post for Fractus Learning includes some great resources for people considering developing a positive education strategy for their school.  Check it out here.

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

How Do We Rebuild Trust in Our Schools?

People don’t seem to trust teachers the way they used to. Our community no longer assume  they can rely on the school system and its teachers to provide a quality education for their children.

It’s not helped by headlines like this that appear so frequently in the news.

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 7.54.42 pm

From – click image for article.

It’s not helped by school choice policies which generate anxieties,  perpetuating the idea that since there is choice some schools and some systems will be better than others.

It’s not helped by politicians who  talk about the education crisis and getting rid of bad teachers.

It’s not even helped by visionary speakers like Sir Ken Robinson talking about how schools kill creativity and fail to prepare students for modern life.

Educators and those who support us, rail against the injustice of this. We feel angry when we are portrayed in a negative light. We bemoan the fact that our professionalism isn’t recognised and that everyone is an arm-chair expert. We feel it’s unfair. We feel we’re fighting a losing battle, and it’s doubtful we will ever be able to stop politicians and the Murdoch press from publicly denigrating teachers.

But that’s beyond our control. We need to focus on what we have the ability to do.

So how do we rebuild trust?

If we ask that, we’re asking the wrong question, according Philosopher Onora O’Neil in this brilliant  TED talk.

She says,

Calling the task rebuilding trust, I think, also gets things backwards. It suggests that you and I should rebuild trust. Well, we can do that for ourselves. We can rebuild a bit of trustworthiness.We can do it two people together trying to improve trust. But trust, in the end, is distinctive because it’s given by other people.

You can’t rebuild what other people give you. You have to give them the basis for giving you their trust. So you have to, I think, be trustworthy.

Our goal as individual teachers, as schools and systems, needs to be that we are perceived as worthy of trust. And, to be worthy of trust, according to O’Neil, we need to show people three things:

We need to show that we are competent, we are honest and we are reliable.

  1. Be competent. We need to be committed to having the necessary skills required for our job, and we need to keep growing our competency by reflecting critically on  our practice, keeping and engaging in on going professional learning and keeping our skills up to date.
  2. Be honest. It goes without saying that we need to act with integrity at all times, and this includes giving honest feedback. Parents don’t trust us when we gloss over weaknesses in their children’s learning.
  3. Be reliable. If we say we are going to do something, we need to follow through. People need to know that they can depend upon us.

If I was to add to O’Neil’s suggestions, I’d include be ethical and be open.

It’s only as we let people in to our schools, and classrooms that they will start to see we are worthy of trust. If the only information people receive is through the media, or from the mumbled responses of their children when they ask them what they did at school today,“Nothing, Mum”, then how will people see that they can put their trust in us. They can only act on what they know.

A Reflection on Teaching – Some keys to success.

I want to share a success story I’ve been having with a Year 5/6 class. This year, I’ve been teaching them art, but the reasons for success may well have implications for other curriculum areas as well. I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

This term, I decided to focus on different techniques that artists use to create the illusion of depth, or perspective in their work.

My first lesson was on one point linear perspective. I showed the students a number of pictures, photographs and illustrations that clearly demonstrated the technique. The students were very responsive. They started to look more analytically and enjoyed finding the vanishing points and horizon lines in the various pictures. However, when asked to draw their own, many were resistant and uncooperative, declaring it too hard before they’d even attempted it. I insisted and we worked step by step. They each produced successful, simple one point perspectives with a high way disappearing into a vanishing point on the horizon line in the centre of the page.

For our second lesson, we watched this video:

We then worked step by step creating our own one point perspective rooms. I modelled the drawing on the board, while students followed each step at their desks. They found the ruler work quite challenging,  and again were quite resistant;  however, all came up with good results. But, in spite of their great results, the students were very self-critical, saying how bad their drawings were, that they were ‘dumb’ and ‘no good’ at art.

For our third lesson, I decided to introduce the idea of colour value. As things recede into the distance, the colours become fainter. Objects closer to the foreground have stronger and more vibrant colours.

I projected some of the images from this great website to demonstrate colour value to my students, and we observed the  value in  a number of photographs and paintings. Again the students were  fascinated by observing this. They weren’t used to deconstructing images and considering how the illusion of depth was created. As they started to observe the change in colour value they became quite excited.

I showed them this picture  from the fabulous Landscape and Figurative Art blog by artist Jim Shanahan,  and told them we were going to attempt to recreate it in paint.

aerial perspective3

The students were  very reluctant when I told them the task, and wanted to do something that they felt was easier and more achievable. This particular group are very reluctant to take risks with art.  I remained firm, and reassured them that we would do it together, step by step, and it wouldn’t be as hard as they initially thought.  They didn’t believe me but grudgingly cooperated, since they weren’t provided with a choice.

After modelling how to sketch in some basic working lines to show the placement of the mountain range in the background, the hills in the middle ground and the road, running from the fore to the midground, we started painting.

I showed them how to mix acrylic paint on the paper and to use sort of scumbling technique to create a cloudy sky, using the tips of the bristles, not the side of the brush. Within moments, the students found that not only could they use the technique successfully, it was enjoyable. A beautiful, sort of meditative silence fell across the room as the students became absorbed in their painting.

I then showed them how to mix some colours for the mountain range, and together we worked through recreating the image from the top of the page to the bottom of the page. Each student image was slightly different and that was okay. I was clear that our intention was to use colour and line to create a landscape image, not to create an identical image. The end results were magnificent, and some of these very self critical students were actually proud of their work. I would post photographs, but I haven’t sought permission to publish their work on this blog.

Lesson 5 focused on using size to create a sense of depth. I was on sick leave, but I left this Falling Back in Space activity for the casual teacher who replaced me. The final results were great and the students were able to tell me how they used size and foreshortening to create the illusion of depth.

For lesson 6, we watched this video.

Following the video, we recreated each of the 6  images using pencil and paper, then stapled them into a booklet which has become our perspective manual. What we loved about this video was the fact it was so simple. Each image was based on nothing more than a circle, but using simple techniques such as placement, overlapping or size, we could easily create a sense of depth.

Interestingly, for this lesson, there was a noticable change of tone in the classroom. Each week I’d found that class quite challenging. Many of the students lack confidence in art and for some, clowning is a good way of covering up their anxiety. Instead of making a genuine attempt at art and feeling embarrassed by the end result, some preferred to undermine things, joke around and deliberately sabotage their own work, as a way of saving face. It’s okay to fail if you’re not really trying.

However right from the outset of this lesson, the class were enthusiastic. Only one student attempted to disrupt things and the rest told him to be quiet, as they wanted to learn. It was gratifying to see this change of attitude, and that I didn’t have to use more controlling management techniques to achieve a better tone in the room. Instead it came as a result of their increasing confidence in the subject matter. All their work from the previous lessons was displayed around the classroom and it looked fantastic. What had initially seemed like unreasonable and unachievable tasks, now seemed possible. The students had also discovered that they enjoyed art and were fascinated by the use of very learnable techniques to create illusions. And so they had become intrinsically motivated and were moderating their own behaviour and that of their peers as a result.

The students’ next step will be to choose one or more technique to create their own picture with the illusion of depth. I showed them the stunning student created artworks on this website for inspiration. Instead of the resistance I encountered in earlier lessons,  I’m now being confronted by wild enthusiasm.

So what have been the keys to success here?

  • That while encouraging student voice and choice is important, there are times when we need to assert ourselves as experts, and that’s okay. If I had listened to my students objections to our earlier lessons, they would never have discovered that the tasks I was setting for them were achievable. Instead, by ignoring their protestations and taking them out of their comfort zone, I was able to show the students that  they were capable of learning. This is what has led to their enthusiasm and confidence in the latter part of the term.
  • That intrinsic motivation trumps methods of control every time. I don’t like using reward/punish systems of management with students, but for a while there, I was tempted to start using more controlling techniques. I’m glad I didn’t. Instead, by persevering with the program, and providing the right scaffolding and support for students to ensure their success, the group have discovered the intrinsic joy of creating art. The class have become self-managing because they’ve discovered for themselves the intrinsic rewards of learning new things.
  • That the internet is a marvellous,  wondrous thing. I won’t tell you how many years its been since I taught a stage 3 class, but let’s just say the internet was not as present in classrooms and there were no data projectors or IWBs in my classroom. The amount of resources so generously shared by artists and educators has made preparing my lessons so easy,  and the availability of YouTube tutorials has added an extra dimension as well, by allowing us to observe professional artists at work. So,  a huge thank you to all the generous teachers out there.

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.

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