Posts Tagged 21C

Aboriginal Science and Ancient Teaching methodolgies

Last year I had the privilege of spending half a day in the company of Frances Bodkin  (Aunty Fran), an elder of the D’harawal (an aboriginal language (tribal) group of south-western Sydney). The time spent with her and her husband Gavin Andrews was focused on her knowledge of the aboriginal uses of plants, but it revealed so much more. I think the thing that struck me most was the traditional knowledge they held and graciously shared, based on thousands of years of their ancestors’ observation, can be backed up and explained by today’s ‘western’ experimental science. Aunty Fran describes her people’s knowledge as Aboriginal Science, which I think is very appropriate, and I hope her dream to share this knowledge and have it fully acknowledged comes to fruition. Her book D’harawal Seasons and Climatic Cycles is a great starting place to begin to appreciate the depth of knowledge and understanding her people have to share.

Black science has observation and experience, white science has measurements and experiments. If we put the two of them together we’d get a much deeper science.
—Frances Bodkin, Dharawal Elder, NSW—

In the last 5mins of my time with Aunty Fran she discovered I was a school teacher and told me about a research project she had been working on in schools using stories to teach. Her methods were based on traditional aboriginal teaching methods, from an oral culture that had no written language other than the symbolic art  found painted in caves and engraved on rock platforms.

She outlined that in a typical 60min lesson she would take the class outside into the natural environment and engage as many senses as possible (touch, smell, taste, hearing, seeing, balance as well as common sense). She would tell a story related to key points in the curriculum and then ask students in small groups to reconstruct and recount the story. Students were not allowed to record any notes, until after they had recounted to each other what they learned.  Thus a 60min lesson is broken up into 20mins story, 20mins recount and 20 mins of recording. As Fran outlined this method and the success they had measures ( a year later students could recall over 50% of what was taught) it ticked off a lot of the learning theory boxes for me. The elements that struck me were;

  • Engagement: engaging with story – narrative, space and inclusion of  the senses)
  • Metacognition  and collaboration: reconstructing the story in small groups, produces deeper thinking and
  • Personalisation: recording your personal record of the learning.

These are all aspects that dominate the research literature on how people learn.  I have instinctively included elements of story or narrative in my lessons. I think  statements like “the way humans learn in the C21st has changed” are misleading. Humans now have an array of technology to assist learning, but my gut feeling is that at a biological level we still learn the same way we always have and that the reason narrative is  a part of all ancient cultures teaching practices is because that is how our brains are wired to learn.  The narrative helps us link new concepts to old and allows us to remember the important bits associated with the story. I would also make the bold claim that all children learn similarly and that taking an ancient aboriginal approach to instruction should also work with non-indigenous children. I have since experimented with my own classes and developed a unit around the ecology we teach to year 9 students. I will recount my experiences in future posts.


Bodkin, Frances & Robertson, Lorraine (2008). D’harawal : seasons and climatic cycles. F. Bodkin & L. Robertson, Sydney

A great introduction to Aunty Fran was produced by ABC Message Stick  :

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Personal Digital Devices and Learning

My school has gone down the 1 to 1 device route.  Year 5 and 8 this year have had devices introduced into their learning environments and then progressively over the next couple of years personal digital devices (PDDs) are being introduced into the other learning environments.

This implementation is different from most other schools I know of, for two reasons. (I would be interested to discover other schools that are similar.) Firstly it was the pedagogy being employed by the school that triggered the need and demand for better access to digital information and processing. The school is seriously investing in pedagogical developing, changing learning so that it is personalised, collaborative, constructivist and deep thinking in nature. It has not resulted from a government mandated and funded program or an elitist laptop program that has placed devices into classrooms that don’t get used because teaches have not changed how they teach. (A generalization I know, but I do also know it’s a reality in many schools)

Secondly notice I have been using the term device not laptop. The school has taken the decision to use a university model of device tooling.  That is the students provide their own device, and can choose to bring whatever device they want.  Parents were given some advice as to what was needed such as Wi-Fi ability, and basic software / app suggestions (word processor, spread sheet, presentation software). Thus the array of devices is impressive, 17′ laptops, 10’netbooks, Windows, Mac, and iPads. Three different operating systems and endless variations in specifications and software.

The first couple of weeks were manic mostly because of Wi-Fi issues, with many devices that could not connect. This has mostly been sorted and as part of the year 8 integrated unit (Quest) teaching team I’m able to walk around our open space learning area (SCIL) and observe 90-140 students working productively, independently or collaboratively, on tasks.  In this environment teachers act more often as mentors and guides getting students to think more deeply about concepts and skills rather than being the providers of knowledge. Sounds great and it is. I often have to stop and reflect how different it is to what I have done in the past.

I was walking past a group of teachers the other day and one made the observation that it was actually very difficult to find students doing the wrong thing.  They meant this in a positive way. Students are so engaged that they are not wasting time and energy off task.  It immediately struck me that he was right. 95% of the students are intrinsically motivated and engage with the learning tasks.  But on further reflection and on examination of work being produce there are some students that look busy, look engaged but are not producing much in a lesson.  How do we ‘catch’ these students, what gives them away? The answer is age-old, active teachers who take the time to get to know their students individually.  You engage them, by personalizing and differentiating tasks. Knowing your students also informs your decisions of when to give direct instruction and when to let them uncover and discover for themselves. Teaching continues to be an art form, not a science, it needs to be relational and active.

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How does what we do compare to how the research says it should be done?

This week I took a step back and looked at the big picture of the why, how and what.  That is; why we exist as an organisation, how we go about obtaining our vision and what it looks like in practise  (the three rings of my diagram).

The inner ring, the why …the schools vision and focus statements for 2011, were developed by the principal, his executive and school board.

My focus was to compare how what we do in day-to-day teaching at my school compares to the research into how students learn (Darling-Hammond, 2008; Donavan & Bransford, 2005) and the research into what teaching practices work  (Hattie, 2009). Thus the second ring is made up of the four elements described by the research. That is the need to personalise the learning of students, to help them to develop the deep thinking and metacognitive skills required to become autonomous learners, to incorporate cooperative learning as a way of developing students thinking and metacognition, and to enable teachers to actively gain feedback from students and applying that feedback to help students take the next steps on their learning path.

When examining what the practices occurring at my school are, as noted in the outer ring of the diagram, I saw that many of them aligned to and supported the development of one or more of the elements identified by the educational research.

While this is  encouraging I would add that we still have a long way to go.  When we go about these day-to-day activities I am unsure how many of my colleges are conscious of the how, that is, how do these activities align to the research and to the school vision. I know myself I need to stop and make some more conscious decisions about the tasks I chose and the way they are delivered to ensure they actively support the learning of my students.

I was also part of a discussion earlier in the week  which was questioning how far in the shift from an industrial model to something new we had come, and if we would ever reach the end of needing to transform our practises.  The consensus was for the foreseeable future change will be the norm.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). Teaching and learning for understanding. In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (pp. 1-10). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Donavan, M. S., & Bransford, J. D. (Eds.). (2005). How Students Learn: Science in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

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What is 21st century learning?

What is 21st century learning? This is a question I pondered all of last year. My thinking started around what skills will be needed by our students when they leave school, and I was recommended 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times (Fadel & Trilling, 2009), but after reading through this book I was still stuck with the question of ‘what is 21st teaching and learning?  How do I do the teaching and how do I help my students do the learning?  I was left feeling there must be more than teaching a whole new skill set, as these skills could be taught in the same old way, of direct instruction from the teacher.  Surely more has to change than just the skills or content we covered.

Fadel & Trilling  (2009) did help me with my thinking by pointing me towards research into how people learn.  In particular Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (Darling-Hammond, 2008). This led me to ask the question ‘what is the best learning and teaching based on research?’  It is a very different question to ‘what is 21st century teaching and learning?I don’t think we should limit our description of teaching and learning to a ‘time stamp.’ A decade into the 21st century the moniker already sounds dated.

Combining the research on how we learn (Darling-Hammond, 2008)  with research on what teaching practises work, collated by Hattie (2009), I had my thinking about successful learning develop around some key concepts.21st C learning

  • student centred personalised learning paths
  • learning tasks that produce and enhance deep thinking and metacognition
  • collaborative / cooperative learning involving open-ended problems
  • active teacher involvement which most importantly involves formative feedback

Each of these is supported by research to effectively improve student outcomes, but should not be treated as separate elements, rather as a set of integrated, interdependent  areas that support each other in the goal of enhancing student achievement.

These elements will be what I will be focusing on this year, as I evaluate my approach to what I do in my classes.

Darling-Hammond (Ed.) (2008). Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fadel, C., & Trilling, B. (2009). 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Wiley.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

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Teaching Online – Biology

One of the exciting things I am doing this year is teaching a senior Biology class online. My school NBCS has developed and implemented the HSC Online as part of Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL). This year I am teaching to both a group of students face to face and to another group of student online. Although this is the first time I have acted as an online teacher, my previous experience of online learning has been as a student completing a Masters degree. The HSC Online students are made up of students from my school and others from a range of different schools from across the state (NSW, Australia). Students taking Biology online who attend my school as regular students fall into two groups. Students that are currently in stage 6, year 11 who have a timetable clash or students from  stage 5, year 10 who are being accelerated, allowing students to study online increases their choices. Conversations I have had with students studying online suggest they prefer the flexibility of completing their work when they want to.

The online course is hosted within Moodle and is divided into its different units on a weekly basis.  Each week contains a power point presentation, and some activities to complete. Such as multiple choice quizzes with instant feedback and more in-depth questions which students upload and I make comments on. I also include learning objects from sources such as Scootle (The Le@rning Federation) and other web-based interactive resources. Students have access to relevant videos and or podcasts as the weeks work dictates. HSC Online has been established for a couple of years and thus the online Biology course was originally set up by another teacher and has been run by others before I have taken over.  As a result I have been slowly adding, removing and adapting things to improve the students’ experience.  One thing I have started to utilize is Elluminate, where I can meet students in a virtual room online to talk through the week’s power point and other activities.  One of the best features I utilize in Elluminate is that it’s ability to show other applications and programs running on my desktop.  I have used this to demonstrate the learning objects, or interactive web pages that explain key concepts. Elluminate allows for the session to be record and accessed at a later date via an online link that students who can’t make it in real-time or those doing some revision find invaluable.

Of course there are all the mandatory practical investigations to get through and these happen the first day of every term (traditionally a student free day) where students studying online come in to complete hands on Biology while their peers enjoy one more day of holidays.  These days are exhausting for both the students and the teacher, but the advantage over the traditional mode is the concentrated amount of time spend immersed in hands on biology that enables deeper connections to the theory and concepts that are covered.

There are two areas that have surprised me teaching online.  One is that although students are very attuned to using the online environment and social media, they are very shy in the discussion boards   and in the Elluminate virtual space where they have the option to speak using microphones but so far, all have chosen the safer option of typing comments and questions in the instant text feature.  My own personal experience of completing courses online is that there is a fear of looking (and sounding) stupid to be overcome. Developing a trusting and cooperative online learning community has become one of my highest priorities. Secondly, students completing Biology online are doing better than those I see face to face.  Others had told me this was the case and I had attributed it to better students opting to take online courses.  But it appears when comparing equal ability students the online ones do better.  These observations are still far from statistically sound, but I think there is something in it that deserves some careful investigation.  This apparent distortion in results has caused me to reassess what I am doing face to face.   I can see my teaching being shifted by how students are learning online.

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