Posts Tagged Pedagogy

A walk in the bush, provoking kids to think!

It’s Friday afternoon, it’s warm and it’s the last lesson of the day, and I have a restless year 9 Science class. Another teacher and I decide to take our two classes out to teach some ecology using a story. The story is a traditional dreaming story from the D’harawal people from the south of present day Sydney. It tells the story of three beautiful sisters, with golden hair and green eyes and the warrior who thought he was a ‘clever man’ who wanted to marry one of sisters. The sisters were very similar in appearance and to marry one all the warrior had to do was to find a way to tell them apart. After years of careful observation he fails, the sisters grow old and die and are rewarded for their faithful service to their people by being transformed into three different wattles which continue to provide for the people. The warrior has it revealed to him that the only difference in the three sisters was the shade of green that coloured their eyes, if only he had been more observant!   I have told this story before, with other groups, but usually I  tell the story while scratching aboriginal symbols in the dirt or sand on a bush trail, to represent the different characters of the story, and I pick leaves from different wattles as I walk and place them on my dirt picture to represent the different eyes. Today was different, the students were obviously suffering Friday afternoon, restlessness and we did a long walk to a shady spot on a rocky outcrop in the National Park, to help reduce the restlessness. With no dirt patches I resorted to getting students to act out the story as I told it.  The immediate result were the same as previous telling’s of the story; students were able to point out a number of learning outcomes for the story such as the importance of careful observation required to survive in the Australian bush, the complexity of bush land ecology and there is always a wise female student to point out the arrogance of the warrior and his need for humility. The thing that stood out on this occasion was not the different approaches to recounting the story, but the reaction of some students on the walk back to school. Having walked out further than we normally do, we had a longer walk back.  This allowed time for those students that wanted to know more to ask. I walked back with a large number of students wanting me to point out what there was to observe in the different plant communities along the track and to add as much information as I could. The questions and reflections of the students surprised me, the activity had produced far greater reflective thought than you achieve on most Friday afternoons. Months later students can still recount that afternoon, and often ask if we can get out and go for a walk, now all I need are some good stories that help explain atomic theory.

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Learning using Narrative: Collaborative reflection, group feedback and individual records

This post describes the second part of an introductory lesson to our year 9 Ecology topic. It uses the technique of teaching with narrative. A description of the first part of this lesson is found here and an overview of the inspiration for using narrative teaching is found here.

In this learning session, students took part in three activities;

  • small group collaborative recount of the story,
  • retelling of the story to the whole class by each collaborative group and finally
  • personal reflection and recording.

In small groups students discussed the journey into the National Park; each member was able to build on the memories and reflections of others to help construct the whole narrative. As I wondered around the groups I was amazed at the level of recall that was present, including details I had not noticed.

The groups where then asked to present their recount to the whole class. But rather than doing this verbally they were ask to create a recount using only symbols. Some traditional symbols from aboriginal storytelling and explanations for them were given. Examples included animal tracks left behind in the dirt, the symbol for a human is also often a representation of the impression their bottom and tools would leave where they had sat on the ground, waterholes and campsites. Students were also encouraged to develop their own symbols using similar thinking process, but no words were allowed.  Each group then presented their narrative recount to the whole class.

Finally students were given time to reflect on the purpose of the narrative and record it how they saw fit in their workbooks or in a document on their digital devices.  In this case many students took digital pictures of the narrative they had produced with the symbols.

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Connections to the Land: Teaching Ecological Science using Narrative

Here is a description of the first lesson in our year 9 Ecology topic. It uses the technique of teaching with narrative. The lesson was split over two learning sessions. The first described here took the students on a journey into the national park that adjoins our school.

A note about context: Our school is on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Australia. Although there are a handful of students with aboriginal heritage the majority are representative of the area, being made up mostly of both recent and early immigrants with European cultural backgrounds. Most have had little exposure to indigenous cultures.

The journey into the national park started with an acknowledgement of the traditional indigenous custodians both past and present. Students were painted up with ochre on their foreheads and hands to acknowledge respect for the people and land we were entering. They were informed that it indicated we come with in peace and with respect,  we would not travel to places we were not meant to go or touch anything we were not meant to touch. This was reinforced with a reminder that we were entering a national park and we take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.

The group then made its way to a rock platform that has a permanent small creek flowing over the surface and off an overhang as a small waterfall.  Students invited to have sit on the rock and encouraged to scrunch up and role a gumleaf in their hands to release the eucalyptus oil, taking deep inhales of the oil and thus stimulate their sense of smell, an activity carried out by indigenous children to help retain memory of stories and lessons taught.  Axe grinding groves where pointed out in the creek and a description of aboriginal connection to place and the significance of fresh waters sources was explained. This was linked to our study of ecology and the interconnectedness of life.

Students were then invited to climb around and under the overhang where there are a group of ancient aboriginal stencils of hands and tools at the back of the cave. While these were being pointed out and examined by students again a further explanation of aboriginal’s connection to the land and place where emphasised as was the need for deep respect for such ancient artwork.

Finally as we returned up the hill to the school, aboriginal recognition of the significance of observational science was discussed, such as the use of plants for food and medicine and an understanding of approaching weather and rain that can be gained from observing ant behaviour.

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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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‘Thinking students’ require ‘thinking teachers!’

For a number of years I have been trying to implement tasks that increase my students thinking and collaboration. One observation I have made is that introducing tasks that increases the depth of student thinking also requires deeper thought from the teacher. This was highlighted to me when I started including what I thought were fairly simple thinking tasks into a departments’ teaching program. I had very experienced teachers coming to me declaring in exasperation ‘that they couldn’t do the task how could we expect students to do it?’

One invaluable resource I find inspiration for these tasks is from the Innovative teachers’ companion (ITC). The ITC has thinking tools, explanations and examples scattered through its diary on a weekly basis. I have used the ITC diary for several years and have over time developed a number of tasks and approaches that have benefited the learning in my classes.  My personal application of theses thinking tools has been accelerated lately by subscribing to TeacherPD Online, produced by the same guys as the ITC it provides short videos on all the thinking tools and collaborative strategies fond in the companion, as well as templates and examples. The examples provided span all the key learning areas. The videos clearly explain the tasks in a way that writing them up in a program never could, and are invaluable to teachers that are trying to develop greater thinking in their students. Teachers will still be required to think deeply themselves about what they are trying to achieve. I often find that the most useful examples come from outside my own area of expertise, as they push my own thinking further.

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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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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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