De-Cluttering your Teaching Practice

Earlier this year, I was revisiting John Hattie’s work on visible learning, and was struck by his mantra: Know thy impact.

To be honest, I’m not sure I know what to make of his study of the effect size of different teaching practices and influences. There seem to be as many voices that challenge his findings as support them, and I know so little about research methods or statistical analysis that I don’t feel I can even have an opinion.

But I am interested to know if the work I do does have impact and achieves the desired outcomes for my student. So to that extent at least, I’m a fan of Hattie. I really concur with his message:

Educators, know thy impact.

So what has that to do with the title of this piece: De-Cluttering your Teaching Practice?

We are so busy as teachers, we don’t always consider the impact of what we do. We can spend an inordinate amount of time on things that don’t matter. We take on new practices but we hang on to the old. We work too hard, the benefits often far out-weighed by the cost.

As an example: In NSW primary schools, we use the Human Society and Its Environment Curriculum (HSIE). It has learning outcomes for each two-year stage of schooling.

Years ago, my stage team found we could cover those outcomes over 6 of the 8 available terms, and we mapped out a plan to do that. As Term 4 was our busiest, with end of year concert preparation, swim scheme, and other events, I advised teachers not to include HSIE in their Term 4 program. There was enough to do, and the curriculum requirements had been met.

However, some would not heed the advice. Some found it hard to come to terms with the idea of NOT teaching HSIE every week of every term, because in primary schools, that’s what you DO. It’s embedded.

I’d observe them struggling with stress. They’d feel guilty for not covering things and extremely over loaded. Sometimes they’d blame me, or others in the management team. I felt for them, I did. But it was clear that at least part of their overload was caused by being unwilling to let go of an unnecessary practice.

I observe this repeatedly: teachers hanging on to practices because they feel they should be done, it’s the way they’ve always done things, or because its something they happen to like.

How to De-Clutter 

For the last few years, I’ve been working on decluttering my practice, but keeping Hattie’s words in mind, has proven particularly useful this year. If we reflect on the impact of our practices, we can make far better choices in how to spend our time.

As I consider my practices, I ask myself,

“Will this have a positive impact on my students and help achieve our goals?”

If I can say yes, I ask this follow up question.

“Will the amount of impact be worth the time taken to implement this practice?” 

If I answer yes to both of those questions, I implement the practice. If the answer is no, I need to either drop or redevelop it.

Finally, I need to ask,

“Do I have time to implement this practice? What low impact practice can I discard to make room for this?”

I realise there’s a lot in teaching that we have to do, but as a starting point for decluttering, it might help to think about this for areas within your control:

Consider what you spend your and your class’s time on. In primary schools for example, we seem to love creating and laminating resources. Will that chart or board game have any sort of real impact? Is it worth the time it takes to create? Will laminating it increase its impact?

If its something that will make a difference, you’ll use it again and again, and the time spent creating it really is worth the benefits for your students, go ahead, create and laminate it. But if not, then why spend the time? Time is precious, make sure you spend it on the things that matter.

What about productive use of classroom time? Do you really need to have all your students come and sit on the mat when they enter the classroom, and quietly wait for you to deal with parents, notes, roll call and messages, before commencing their learning? Is there something more productive your students could be doing for those first minutes of every morning before you call them together to meet as a class? Can you adapt your class routine, to maximise the benefit to students and and minimise waste?

Our time is precious and limited, lets direct it to where it can have greatest effect.


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.

Should Australian primary school teachers be subject specialists?


Yesterday, Adelaide Now published this story, reporting that the Federal Government in Australia is considering making primary school teachers subject specialists.

It’s not the first time the idea has been mooted. I noticed a number of reports throughout 2014 suggesting the same.

The reasoning appears to be that this will be a way of reversing the apparent slump that Australia is experiencing in Mathematics and Science.

There are some compelling reasons to consider the idea:

A number of high performing school systems do have specialist teachers. According to the article, both Finland and Singapore require their primary teachers to have specialisations.

Representatives from the Australian Science Teachers Association and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers , quoted in the article, claim their research has shown  the majority of Australian primary teachers feel inadequate to address or teach science, and that they don’t have sufficient knowledge to teach maths well.

However, in spite of this, the idea does not sit comfortably with me.

 A few concerns:

Being a generalist teacher allows us great flexibility in how we deliver the curriculum. We are not restricted by the complex timetabling issues which would be created by requiring specific subjects to be taught by specialists.

I can increase or decrease the time my class spends on subjects like maths on a daily or weekly basis according to their learning needs.

My timetabling flexibility means that I am not forced to teach maths at 2:00pm on a hot Friday afternoon to a class full of tired 8 year olds. I timetable my subjects around what will support learning, not around the availability of specialist teachers.

Teaching the same class for all subjects importantly means that I can take an integrated approach to help students see the connections and relevance of subjects like maths to other areas of the curriculum. For example, when studying measurement in mathematics,  we are able to integrate it with our work in art, geography, science and sport. Students are able to make meaningful use of their mathematical skills, which creates a NEED to learn and a subsequent improvement in engagement. The work becomes relevant.

Some good points

I’m reluctant to completely dismiss the idea. My primary school happens to have a specialist science teacher who teaches science during our 2 hours release from face-to-face teaching time each week . The expert knowledge and passion she brings to this subject is inspiring, and the curriculum she  teaches is a step above what I would be able to offer. You can see her work here.

Our science teacher also works as a mentor. We have more classes than she can cover, so we have generalist teachers employed to teach science to the additional classes. She works closely with those teachers, assisting them to develop and deliver their curriculum.

Her work has inspired countless young students to take an interest in science that I hope will carry through to high school and beyond. I can honestly say that since she joined our team, science at my school has become something we are truly proud of.

But much as I value our science program, I would not like to see specialisation to the extent that our curriculum becomes fragmented, where subjects are only able to be  taught in isolation by separate teachers, instead of in a manner that allows a more holistic, integrated approach.

A better answer

I believe a better answer is to be found in improving our preservice teacher education, and in our ongoing professional learning.

Science and mathematics are not optional add ons. They are part of the core curriculum. It’s unacceptable for primary school teachers to be incapable of teaching either area. IT’S OUR JOB!

I’m not without sympathy for those teachers. If so many are feeling incompetent then I’d have to ask if they are being adequately prepared to teach those subjects in their preservice teacher education? Why are so many teachers apparently entering our system without competency in the very subjects they are being trained to teach?

And if they don’t LIKE teaching those subjects, then I’d have to ask why they became primary school teachers. I repeat: ITS OUR JOB.

To assume that a generalist teacher doesn’t have the ability to teach all those subjects well, simply because they teach across subjects, seems a very impoverished view of our capacity as human beings: to learn and excel in multiple domains.

I am proudly an English teacher, a maths teacher, a science teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher, a history teacher, a geography teacher and health and physical education teacher. My pre-service training at Kuringai College and later University of Technology, Sydney provided an excellent grounding in all of those subject areas. I’ve continued to learn and develop my competencies in those areas and after 20 years am neither lacking in confidence or competence.

To suggest that a specialist is required to do parts of my job because I lack the expertise is insulting.

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.

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.

It Takes a Village

gold-268640_1280I used to work at  school that refused to nominate teachers for any of the awards governments and other organisations provided to acknowledge the work of teachers.  This was a collective decision by the staff.

Our reasoning was simple: we believed that none of us could, as individuals, take credit for the success of our work. We were a team and our successes were a product of many people working together.

Last year, part of my role included support for students who were not meeting expected outcomes in English or mathematics. I’d work with specific students three times per week. Someof the students made incredible gains.

If we were to give an award for that success, who should receive it?

Surely I’d deserve recognition, after all, I’d been the one working closely with those children?

Then again, I wasn’t their only teacher. Their classroom teachers worked with them most of the day, five days a week. There were also  the teachers who’d taught them the year before, identified their specific weakness in learning, and actually started the remediation process?

What about the parents, who were also supporting the learning in their own way at home?

And where does the school P&C fit in? Perhaps they should receive the award as they were the ones who funded the program that allowed me to work with these needy students.

Of course,  let’s not forget the principal who provided the vision, time, resources and professional learning that enabled us to support these students.

I think if any one of us were to receive an award, we’d feel a little uncomfortable.  We know we aren’t working alone.  It would be unfair to place the contribution of one team member above the contributions of the rest.

It’s important to celebrate success, but I’m not convinced that teacher awards are the best way to do that. They suggest that teaching is a solo endeavour and it’s not, it never has been.

As terrific blogger and deep thinking Twitter colleague (whom I recommend you follow) Aaron Davis says so frequently,  “it takes a village”.

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.