Posts Tagged Education

researchEd Sydney 2015: A day of reflecting on research in education

 Is evidence based educational research a fad? Isn’t teaching more a craft than a science?

These were the questions  asked early in the day at researchEd Sydney that challenged and framed my thinking for the rest of the day. researchEd was started by Tom Bennett @tombennett71 in the UK as a vehicle to promote the need to better evaluate the educational silver bullets and/or claims along with masses of educational research that is accumulating.researchED-logo

After listening and taking part in a lot of discussion,  I came to see the value of both; educators need to be aware of educational research and it’s application to the classroom and they need to be artful practitioners of the craft of teaching. This is nothing new and a lot of the preaching that occurred was to the converted.  What follows are my reflections to date on what I heard and learnt.

Teachers as researchers

One discussion that has changed the way I think relates to peer reflection and research.  There are a range of ‘research practices’ that teachers undertake that are helpful for evaluating what is and isn’t working but generally they are undervalued from a academic ‘peer reviewed’ research level.  An excellent example was provided by Michaela Pinkerton @kaiako_nz from Albany Senior High School NZ. It would be interesting to work with universities or other educational research organisations to formalise this reflection so it can be considered valid at a peer review level, but also kept the level of reflection achievable for the classroom teacher.

Research Leader

I love the idea of a Research Leader role in a school proposed by Tom Bennett and reportedly gaining traction in the UK. A Research Leader is someone who:

  • reads and shares ideas within an educational institution
  • critically challenges school leaders using research
  • runs training and seeks answers to school based questions
  • coordinates action research in collaboration with a teaching team
  • organises a Journal Club where educational research is discussed and implemented and reflected on by a group of peers

The Journal Club is something that I had already been organising at my school and it is the 30mins of PD a week that truly helps me reflect and change what I do in the classroom and has involved some of the best conversations I have had in the educational context. I came away from researchEd inspired to continue in 2015 and to increase its influence if possible.

Teaching and Learning Tool Kit

Teaching and Learning Tool Kit

One valuable educational research tool was introduced by John Bush @bushjb from Social Ventures Australia (SVA). The Teaching and Learning Tool kit allows you to search through summaries of educational research on intervention or practices and quickly see their educational benefit, cost of implementation and the validity of current research in one glance. It then allows you to dig deeper into the actual research. It will be invaluable in testing some of the claims I heard on the day such as:

  • engagement and activity are a means to an end…not the end themselves
  • giving students control over learning has a low effect size
  • worksheets need scaffolding
  • discovery learning not as effective as guided discovery
  • learning is not fixed, this is where you are, now know the ‘what next’

Innovation in learning? What if there is no research?

Another question raised was how do you innovate if you need to be evidenced based?  I think the answer here is straightforward: if you try something new, you must reflect and gather some evidence of its effectiveness. Of course many innovations have been tried before, the whole open classroom revolution occurring at present has been tried in the past. Have we learnt anything from previous implementations?Have we gone back and asked questions about why it did not succeed in the past and what we will do differently to produce better results in the current implementation? Are we reflecting on what does and does not work and documenting this in a way others can gain from it? This is what I feel is true innovation.

Humans as learners

I think one message I heard on the day that needs to be sent a little louder to the ‘innovators’ is the question “Has learning really changed?” Humans as learners have not gone through any radical reinvention in recent history, the fact is our biology and the way we learn has not changed at all. We are getting better at understanding how we learn which means we can refine our teaching practises to improve learning but it’s an evolution rather than a revolution.

Finally, I felt that some of the research on how we learn could have been better applied at the researchEd Conference.  I was in cognitive overload shortly after lunch and I would say there was definitely too many workshop sessions and not enough stop, reflect and debrief times. While I informally met and made many new connections it would be great to have built this more formally into the day somehow.

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First steps in SOLO Taxonomy

The SOLO Taxonomy’s power is in its simplicity.  After 6months of implementing it into what we do in Quest (Year 8 integrated Science and Geography) I had a conversation with two year 12 Biology students about how they could improve their written response to HSC questions and released that I was seamlessly describing how they had connected ideas, but they had not extended as the question had ask.  I was explaining this with the simple hand gestures that describe SOLO and realised I had assimilated SOLO into the way I was thinking to the point it was flowing naturally out of me, and what surprised me most was the students grasped what I was saying instantly.

When I first started exploring SOLO Taxonomy I was confused by the terminology and I came to it with the mindset of the complexity of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  I have been a Bloom’s devotee, I believe much of what we have had students doing for so long was low level and not challenging.  Blooms gave some structure to help improve the depth of tasks but I have found Blooms relies on a deep understanding of the verbs used and that often leeds to confusion.  Blooms lacks an underlying framework of what happens when we think and learn.  SOLO on the other hand in its very nature of looking for observably thinking provides the framework that the learning verbs attach to.

Yr_8_Quest__How_has_penicillin_changed_the_world__A_Case_Study_My first steps in introducing SOLO into the lesson preparation for Quest was to describe the SOLO Taxonomy to the team of teachers I work with and create a template using the SOLO symbols that we expected all tasks to aline to (see the image for an example of how it was implemented). We started by only using the last three levels of SOLO (Multistructural, Connected and Extended abstract) in our scaffold and allowed teachers the flexibility of not including all levels if they felt the task could not be pushed into the higher thinking levels. We made extensive use of Pam Hook’s HookED site and the useful tools she makes available. It was stressed that we really wanted the extended tasks to push the students thinking and that they could be seen as ‘extension’ tasks for the brighter students.  In practice I have found that treating these tasks as optional for students or telling capable students to start with the extended tasks has been a helpful differentiation tool for a mix ability class.

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Play Predict Observe Explain (PPOE)

For a while the idea of allowing students time to play and explore with equipment or other experimental setups has been an informal part of the learning in my classrooms.  One place I have been doing this since I started teaching is with microscopes. The wonder of microscopes for me has always been seeing the amazing microscopic world around us.  Yet, there is nothing more boring than a prepared slide of cork cells. While a water sample from a nearby creek or pond can keep students exploring for hours, as they chase protozoa and other microbes around a slide and in the process gain the fluency of microscopy skills required to go deeper.

More recently I have been trying to be more deliberate in designing learning that involves this element of playful experimentation.  One way I have found helps with the planning is to add an extra P (play) to the POE (predict, observe, explain) lesson sequence.


An example of such a lesson is the comparative reaction of  sand from Sydney beaches to that of sand from Sydney sandstone with acid (HCl). The beach sand reacts producing bubbles, while the sandstone sand doesn’t.  I gave the necessary equipment (sand and acid ) to my year 9 science class and with some basic instruction asked them to first predict what would happen and then explore with the reactions of the different sands and acid.  I then gave them microscopes to have a closer look at the sand and asked them to explain the obvious difference in reactions.  It was not until some of the students decided to carry out the reaction under the microscope that they spotted the difference between the sands.  There are obvious particles present in the beach sand that react  while there are others obviously not reacting. And at this point, with the curiosity of the students at its highest,  I stepped in with some explicit teaching of reactions between acid and carbonates (shell bits) and the lack of carbonates in Sydney sandstone.  We were studying some geology and the learning outcome  was about what we can infer about the history and formation of rocks and past environments and not so much the chemistry involved. The hands on problem solving lead to students producing a much better explanation of the differences and a much deeper understanding of the geology involved.

A final reflection is that the playing, predicting and observation do not have to be sequential and that in fact they can occur simultaneously or even in reverse order as observations can lead to new predictions and new play.

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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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Think deeply about what and how you learn.

Research demonstrates that an effective way to enable students to improve learning outcomes is to help them develop the skills to think deeply about what and how they learn (Hattie, 2009). If students are to successfully transfer what they have learnt to new situation and problems then they have to develop a deep understanding of the content they have studied (Darling-Hammond, 2008).  There are three levels at which something can be learnt and understood; surface, deep and constructed understanding. That is we can know information at a surface level, repeating facts but not truly understanding them.  A deeper level of understanding of a concept is developed when we are able to transfer it to new situation making relational connections between two or more concepts or being able to elaborate or extend the concept (Hattie, 2009).

Think deeply about what and how you learn.

Barron & Darling-Hammond (2008) report on the growing body of research that shows students who engage in constructivist inquiry learning; project-based learning, problem-based learning and design-based learning benefit from gains in factual learning that are equivalent or superior to gains from traditional types of instruction, as well as demonstrating a deeper understanding of concepts and an increased ability to take what they know to new situations and problems.

Current cognitive research suggests that there is a general intelligence or general cognitive ability,  that is the ability to think logically, apply knowledge from one context to another, demonstrate deep understanding of a concept, be creative, ask surprising questions and go beyond the given (Philip Adey, Csapó, Demetriou, Hautamäki, & Shayer, 2007).  The concept of a general intelligence is in opposition to the widespread idea that there are multiple intelligences (i.e. Gardner’s  M.I.).  Abby, et al. (2007) argue there is little evidence to support the concept of multiple intelligences.  Research has demonstrated that general intelligence has plasticity; it can be influenced and transformed by the environment. Adey, et al. (2007) state that if teachers  know that they can help students throughout their formal schooling period continually to raise their ability to process information then this must be what teachers should be striving for. It is by far the most efficient use of schooling time, to concentrate on raising intelligence levels so that students become generally more effective learners.

Adey, et al. (2007) list the following as an action plan for raising general cognitive ability.

  1. Learning activities must be generative of cognitive stimulation, i.e. they must have the potential to create challenge rather than being comfortably within the reach of the learner’s current processing capability.
  2. Learning should be collaborative in the sense that learners learn to listen to one another, to argue and to justify, and become accustomed to changing their positions.
  3. Continually raising awareness in students of metacognitive processes

factors in the concept, such as the organization or the quantity of information that cause difficulties in representing and processing;

connecting the present concept to others already in their possession, as they differentiate it from other concepts, and even as they decide that some concepts need to be abandoned;

transferring control of the thinking and learning processes so that the student gradually becomes self-reliant and self-regulating, rather than depending on the teacher continually to monitor and guide his or her thinking.

Adey and Shayer (1994) developed cognitive acceleration programs  incorporating three principles presented as ‘pillars’ to build their lessons around; cognitive conflict, social construction, and metacognition. The cognitive conflict was a problem presented to students to solve. Students were then placed in collaborative groups for discussions around the problem and finally asked to reflect on their thinking and understanding.  Adey and Shayer (1994) have been able to demonstrate tangible gains in both academic outcomes and cognitive development.  They also demonstrated that these gains were not limited to the subject the cognitive acceleration was focused around, but influenced students metacognition and outcomes across all their subjects (Philip Adey, 2004; Shayer, 1997, 1999).

Adey, P. (2004). Evidence for Long-Term Effects: Promises and Pitfalls. Evaluation and Research in Education, 18(1), 83-102.

Adey, P., Csapó, B., Demetriou, A., Hautamäki, J., & Shayer, M. (2007). Can we be intelligent about intelligence?: Why education needs the concept of plastic general ability. Educational Research Review, 2(2), 75-97.

Adey, P., & Shayer, M. (1994). Really raising standards: Cognitive intervention and academic achievement. London: Routledge.

Barron, B., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). How can we teach for meaningful learning. In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (pp. 11-70). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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

Shayer, M. (1997). The Long-Term Effects of Cognitive Acceleration on Pupils’ School Achievement, November 1996. Report: ED408195. 16pp. Mar.

Shayer, M. (1999). Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education II: Its Effects and Scope. International Journal of Science Education, 21(8), 883-902.

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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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Collaboration – Group work – Cooperative Learning

After looking at and reflecting on the list of different skills that are predicted to be important in the 21st century I have  decided to focus on just one; collaboration.  Well, at least have one as a focus while I continue  ruminating on the others, as I think in practice it will be hard to separate many of them as there is a level of interconnectivity.  One example is that  student thinking has been shown to  improve with  student  involvement in group work where they are required to verbalise their understanding or challenge others. Which leads to a deeper understanding and improved learning outcomes.

What is the best way to use group work?I have chosen collaboration as a focus because as a teacher I have at times avoided group work. Group work  often represents hard work having to negotiate the myriad of potential conflicts and relational difficulties that arise when students are allowed or are forced to work together.  When I have assigned group tasks often I have not thought them through as thoroughly as I should have.  Thus by choosing collaboration as a focus I plan  to reflect on the  research  of others that suggests that student outcomes are improved as students engage at a deeper level.

I have started to be more conscious about the use of group work in my lessons and I have started reflecting on how best to plan for and incorporate it. Here is a sample of the questions I’m reflecting on and looking for evidence to answer.

  • Do students performed better if they collaborate?
  • What  different forms of collaboration are used and which are most effective?
  • Is the size of a group significant?
  • Is how group formation occurs important?  (student choice, teacher choice, based on ability, friendship groups, age, ses, gender?)

There is lots to think about.

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