The productive struggle: progress


Tips for pre-service teachers (grain of salt required)

“… effective feedback can almost double the average student growth over a school year.” Hattie and Timperley (2007)
“New understandings are not simply swallowed and stored in isolation; they have to be assimilated in relation to pre-existing ideas. The new and the old may be inconsistent or even in conflict, and the disparities have to be resolved by thoughtful actions on the part of the learner.” Black and William, 2010, p 85.

Learning Goal: to understand factors affecting “engineering classroom activities that elicit evidence of learning” – Black & William (2009)

  •  This feedback to you comes from my 4 years of reflection on contract teaching and two days of reading, research and writing. What I found most interesting: Research into lesson plans show that 80% of planned activities do not provide opportunities for deeper learning to occur (Fullan and Langworthy 2014)

Students love culture. It is their identity: music culture, tech culture, online cultures, ethnic culture, fashion culture, family culture, sporting culture, take your pick! From private girls school Victoria’s Secret pencil cases to tip of American-style baseball caps on their heads in schools with no uniforms. Everyone’s as unique as a Banksy but still in with a gang. All except for the quiet one, the one who secretly knows all the song lyrics but doesn’t let on until she’s wearing red, Dame Edna, selfie glasses.

Sometimes, I open my mouth and students stare at me before asking something completely unrelated, such as: “Where were you born, Miss?”

Apparently, my vocabulary, broad accent and cultural references are positively foreign – it’s ironic because half the classes come from overseas and all my worn-out, proper English mixed with Australian colloquialisms: “shake a leg” or “put your money where your mouth is” are confounding and confusing to them.

However, this is a common refrain among teachers. My expressions are still current and in general usage: maybe not so much a YouTube and definitely not on Instagram, SnapChat or texting (where they just talk among themselves). Even though they live in an information-soaked, image-laden world full of cultural references, all messages carefully crafted, multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns are virtually meaningless to … anyone without a university degree! (hyperbole)

“I know how to read already,” they say, “this is boring.” A good proportion of students proudly pronounce that they don’t read and they don’t like stories. But then you start brainstorming antonyms and synonyms for “fabulous” or “treachery” and talking about the persuasiveness of emotional words, and the motivations for people’s actions … why would Hamlet spurn Ophelia? How has society’s attitude to women changed? What does it mean to be a good man? Why does literature have universal themes? Why are we studying Hamlet? “A heart of stone” – metaphor. “Blood out of a stone” … what is empathy? Slowly, we cover the requirements of the syllabus and the content of the unit, building up understanding, knowledge and skills such as writing paragraphs or public speaking using peer assessment and teacher modelling etc… etc… etc…

A good proportion of students at some schools do not have access to the internet or technology – the digital divide is real. But they only admit this reluctantly themselves. They feel shamed. School is a social minefield. “No student left behind!” the principal cries. “Once more into the breeches!” (pun)

A really good Hattie tip: 
Students need surface knowledge (context for learning new knowledge) first.

The kicker  … most lesson plans only scratch the surface.

(Two 2015 papers: What works and What doesn’t work)

Only after they are able to relate new knowledge to what they already know or feel to be reliable evidence (their existing knowledge, values and beliefs) will they be able to extend this understanding – that is, actually learn something.

I have buried the lead basically here. I have chosen to give you context for this notion of surface versus deep understanding. (anecdotes to engage you in reflection)

Intercultural understanding (General Capability) relies on this process of higher order thinking: holding up a mirror and examining the reflection.

Learning and empathy rely on this process of relating to ideas and relating of ideas. Innovation is a process that slams two seemingly unrelated ideas – phone and camera!

A classroom culture based on feedback (formative assessment)

Today,  I found this aitsl video on feedback which has useful links to factsheets on the use of formative assessment.


Four levels of feedback to give students:

1. understanding the task,
2. understanding the which skills to demonstrate,
3. self-management of learning – planning,
4. personal growth.

Questions to ask yourself : Do they understand the learning goal? Do they feel safe enough to make mistakes, and are they resilient enough to try again?

Never, ever, ever, tell them that they are wrong. This is a path to Middle East tensions in the classroom and with parents.

** Differentiation directive ** beep-beep- click ** offensive manoeuvres ** formative assessment and feedback **** beep-beep- click ** backing up**

Conjures images of Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan, doesn’t it? Feels like it too at times. Once I said to a Year 9 class: “The world will eat you alive”.

Ideas do smash together in student heads and explode out of their mouths.

We were discussing Hunger Games themes, plot and motifs. No matter how many times you protest that is not what you meant, they go home and tell mum: “The teacher told the class that we will be failures in life”.  Never one to throw the towel in, I made Hunger Games Fortune Tellers with quotes, placemats on technology, whiteboard magnets of motifs … even when it appears students aren’t paying attention, they are. The boys chewing paper and jesting all lesson managed A-grade essays.

Ideas do smash together and explode out of their mouths. Worlds collide.

“My mum’s not married!” an indignant Year 10 girl studying Looking for Alibrandi cries out indignantly. “There’s nothing wrong with me!” The indignation of this child will stay with me forever.

I encourage them to question and discuss, to interpret and translate the text. What is culture? (Long wait times, prompts) What are values? Beliefs … attitudes, traditions. Finally, someone of Italian heritage speaks up to comment on Josie’s obsessions. So we look to differences between now and then, but also cultural differences students’ face themselves: various islander cultures, indigenous cultures, Anglo, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Asian, and orange-haired students always seem to want to throw their hat into the ring.

Meanwhile, on this particular day of relief teaching, I am relying on my wits alone. It helps a lot that I have taught this novel before. Cultural change – changing mindsets – learning something new – all involves upsetting the apple cart.

I think that every teacher education course in the country should teach teachers this important fact. What does success look like? Success might involve a student who never speaks being heard, they surprise everyone, the class finds common ground. Success might be the disruption of certainty – stepping out of the comfort zone. This is why students sometimes mistake productive struggle for simply struggling. It is challenging and confronting. And they might go home and complain about it being no fun.

**Video: Stanford University Psychology Professor Carol Dweck on Struggle and the Growth Mindset: “Struggling with big messy problems” so that they feel able to meet a “difficult and uncertain future”.

I actually enjoy a lot of these moments when worlds collide, when they engage and try to figure it out. But as a teacher, I am not just a bystander witness, I am a mediator. And as their teacher, not their parent, I help them reconcile ideas so that they learn to take other points of view into consideration, rather than dismiss or reject. I think that rejecting the new is as bad as rejecting the old, without attempting to understand why or how. An unexamined life … etc… etc… etc… as Socrates said. To examine life properly you have to look beneath the surface.

Students have to assimilate information into their own understanding of the world and decide where they stand, who they are. Let’s break down identity politics in the classroom, if not in the political life of the country and the world. Yes, that racist tag is thrown blithely around the classroom. Among the 24-or-so souls in the room there are many cultures and experiences. Learning is personal and global at the same time.

Building these bridges requires not just engineering strategies and entertaining resources but a lot of psychology – building acceptance, self-reliance and the ability to “fail forwards” (as they say in the start-up world) goes hand in hand with academic achievement. I try to help them understand this point: effort and attitude affect achievement.

The Australian Curriculum’s General Capabilities and Cross-Curriculum Priorities etc. etc. etc. The Australian Professional Standard for Teachers … knowledge and practice … how they learn, how to teach, how to plan, supportive environment … … … …

Standard 5: Assess, Provide Feedback and Report on Student Learning … evidence of student learning. Progress. “A year’s worth of learning for a year’s worth of teaching”

What should a teacher have after a year’s worth of teaching? A year’s worth of learning. _ Hattie’s, 2015 paper. The teacher’s goal is to see student learning progress, and show evidence of this progression. This means that teachers and students should expect that a C-grade student can achieve a B. etc… etc… etc…

Students face many obstacles to learning that teachers must identify and try to address before they are able to learn, or interested in learning. They’ve moved to Australia from overseas, they have anxiety issues, they face racism and bullying, they face all the stresses of adolescence. And you thought that they just walked into a classroom wanting to learn, didn’t you? Well, I suppose I kind of did, when this all began five years ago.

Worlds are colliding. The classroom is a battlefield of ideas, of social expectations and a clash of cultures – know your audience, know what they know and know what they don’t know. (Standard 1 of the Professional Standards for Teachers) Do this while moving from school to school, term to term, as a contract teacher. Real endurance training.

Don’t rely on others. Ask questions. Not guaranteeing you will always get productive answers. “I don’t get paid to write a term plan” or “That’s the HOD’s job”. Then, in the next quixotic breath, “I should know, I am a senior teacher”.

“New understandings are not simply swallowed and stored in isolation; they have to be assimilated in relation to pre-existing ideas. The new and the old may be inconsistent or even in conflict, and the disparities have to be resolved by thoughtful actions on the part of the learner.” Black and William, 2010, p 85.

Worlds colliding. They may not go supernova for years. Especially, when they refuse to accept there’s no “u” in “appalling”. They refuse to accept that February has two “r”s!

The funny thing about teaching is that as much as you want to hear them discuss and engage with ideas in the classroom, at least a third of them don’t want to hear what you have to say until “they like you”, and they certainly want to know that you like them. So it falls to me, as their teacher, to show them that enjoyment of learning requires some effort on their part, whether they like me, or my hair, or my dress sense, or my age, or not. It has to be 50:50. There is no try, there is only do. This is a skill that will help students succeed in life beyond school – to work autonomously, to be motivated, work collaboratively and embrace challenges.

Strategies that privilege deep learning

  • inquiry-based learning;
  • individualised instruction;
  • matching teaching to styles of thinking;
  • problem-based learning;
  • whole-language learning; and
  • student control over learning.

(Hattie, 2015)


Inequality – teaching resource link

How do you solve a problem like inequality? Economic policymakers have been grappling with this for a long time, with varying degrees of urgency. The…

via Throughout history, the best ways to reduce inequality have been disease and destruction — Quartz

Dystopia with an environmental focus: World Shaker and The Lorax study (Part 1)

Art activities: word wall. Handprints : the Earth is in your hands

I made blackboards to hang at the back of the classroom for illustrated quotes and word walls. I bought exercise books for students to use as journals that were kept in the classroom.

Encourage students to scribble down their ideas, do independent research and think deeply to form their own opinions – then, develop persuasive techniques.

dystopia thumbs up.JPG

Consumption was the subject of one lesson and developed arguments for and against technology using a thumbs up/thumbs down template.

“Show me you and the universe” is an activity from a book about teaching gifted children but it proves entertaining and insightful with students generally in English or Humanities.

Students work in small groups or pairs to devise a representation of themselves and the universe. They may choose to express their idea in any form: drama, text, drawing, spoken word … it is a lovely way to connect the personal to the big picture. Explore the connections between part and the whole, microcosms and macrocosms. Often their presentations are delightful and insightful.

Resource: “World Shaker” spelling list.


PBS video resource: developing empathy

#identity #family #home #friends #Syria #empathy

Activity: Watch the video. Answer the questions. Write a reflective short response.

Everyone constructs their identity through their feelings about where they belong and what they are connected to. How many connections to Ossama’s identity are represented in the video?

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