Monday, 27 October 2014

The power of humility

I had a class earlier this week that made me feel like I was a poor teacher.

It was a class where the intended learning outcome changed during the class.

It was a class where I was irritated and distracted by other things happening at school, and not focused on the class at hand, not present.

It was a class where I was snappy and authoritarian and nothing like the teacher I wanted to be.

It was also a class where I got to go back in and try again. I have a split double over recess, a period before and one after. My feelings of being out of touch with the class, having them frustrated, me disappointed and annoyed got put on pause at recess. I knew I had to re-group.

I went and had a break during recess, had some food, and then went back to the classroom early to prepare. Once the bell went and class began, I immediately took the students out of the classroom. We went to sit outside near the stadium and debrief the morning's class.

I sat them down and waited a minute as they gathered around. I spoke gently about why I had brought them out of class: namely that I was frustrated with how I had run the morning's class. I talked about how I was frustrated that this would for some of them, their last experience of formal science education. I talked about how I felt that my teaching in that class did not help them learn. I talked about how I felt unprepared for this class. I talked about how I felt that in not seeing them earlier in the week (a relief teacher had taken them for their introduction to new topic area) that their behaviour had changed. I asked if any of them had any questions or observations, and whether they felt that my analysis agreed with their own. I kept it relatively brief.

We headed back inside and resumed class. I felt clear on the intended learning outcome for my students, and made sure they knew what it was. Their behaviour was transformed. They were focused and attentive and self-regulating. I was relaxed, and able to teach for learning.

I had just witnessed the power of humility.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Do you have the HOTS for science? Part 3

Making change in teaching and assessment
In my role as Year 11 curriculum leader this year, one of the projects I am involved in was an action research project into developing higher order thinking skills and assessment tasks for the Year 11 science curricula. This post is part of a series (See Part 1 and Part 2)

Over the course of this project it has become clear that teachers at my school are not very clear on what higher order thinking skills in science look like. They are not clearly defined. Without this, it is difficult to teach and assess such skills.

This project has shifted from trying to directly change what is occurring in the science classroom, to developing teacher awareness of such skills.

So what are higher order thinking skills?
There is a vast literature around higher order skills, yet they are not adequately defined. What are the higher order thinking skills needed in the science classroom? What do they look like? If we are to assess them, what is the standard against which we are assessing?

I have developed the table below to provide answers to teachers who are looking to develop their pedagogical skills in science, particularly in knowing how to teach and assess some of the key higher order thinking skills (HOTs) in science.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Science Pedagogy at my school

I have been asked along with another colleague to develop a pedagogical model for science.

This is a presentation that I am giving tomorrow with said colleague on what we have come up with following quite a bit of research, professional reading, twitter conversations, LinkedIn dicussions, staff surveys and informal chats.

Any feedback would be gratefully received!

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Trying to get traction with my change project on HOTS

I have found that in my action research for this project, that often times I am coming back to what feels like square one with my project, rather than majestically changing the educational experience of a whole host of students. I feel as though trying to get traction for the ideas and changes I am bringing is difficult. One of the things that stuck with me from the seminar days with Emerging Leaders was that as soon as you are not leading a change, you can have no control over it.

I feel that whilst I can effectively control what happens in my classroom, I am getting stuck trying to develop this change for other teachers. I feel that these teachers are weighed down by the expectations placed on them, and that adding more to their plates, no matter how much they think it is a good idea, is not possible.

Juxtaposed against this feeling of failure is the sense that I am changing and developing both as an educator and a leader. I feel that in my classroom, everything, from the language I use with my students (including describing the types of knowledge), the time I give students to attempt challenging tasks that require thinking, and my expectations that they do think (often), is developing through my project.

My personal development is gratifying, and I see the results in my students and how they respond to the learning environment in a positive way, as a success. Where I struggle is to know how to adequately translate my wins into wins for the other Year 11 science teachers, as per my goals with my project.

There is not a lot of time left!

Friday, 26 September 2014

Do you have the HOTS for science? Part 2

So what are higher order thinking skills?
Defining higher order thinking skills in the context of science education was a relatively tricky. Whilst much of the literature refers to higher order skills, it is not always clearly defined. We know from Bloom's taxonomy that more complex thinking skills include: evaluation, synthesis and creation or in the revised taxonomy: creating, evaluating, analysing. Yet what do these mean necessarily, in the science classroom? What do they look like? If we are to assess them, what is the standard against which we are assessing?

Key Higher Order Thinking Skills
With these questions in mind, I went through the relevant curricula for my state, for the VCE (Victoria Certificate of Education) and pulled out the key skills they focused on, for the areas of physics, chemistry, biology and psychology.

These are the terms I collected (I have highlighted key terms):

analyse and interpret data, and draw conclusions consistent with the research question
evaluate the validity and reliability of research investigations including potential confounding variables and sources of error and bias
apply understandings to both familiar and new contexts
evaluate the validity and reliability of psychology-related information and opinions presented in the public domain

evaluate experimental procedures and reliability of data
collect, process and record information systematically; analyse and synthesise data; draw conclusions consistent with the question under investigation and the evidence obtained
apply understandings to familiar and new contexts; make connections between concepts; solve problems
analyse and evaluate the reliability of information and opinions presented in the public domain

collecting, processing, recording, analysing, synthesising and evaluating qualitative and quantitative data
draw conclusions consistent with the question under investigation and the information collected, identifying errors and evaluating investigative procedures and reliability and accuracy of data
select first-hand and second-hand data and evidence to demonstrate how physics concepts, theories and models have developed and been modified over time

draw conclusions consistent with the question under investigation and the information collected; evaluate procedures and reliability of data
identify and address possible sources of uncertainty
make connections between concepts; process information; apply understandings to familiar and new contexts

use first and second-hand data and evidence to demonstrate how chemical concepts and theories have developed and been modified over time

An emerging picture
The common theme that emerges from these curricula is that students need to be taught the higher order thinking skills of analysing and interpreting scientific information to draw logical, valid conclusions; synthesising and processing data in a sensical way; and applying understanding to both familiar and new contexts.

What has become apparent to me over the course of this change project, is that it is not necessarily clear to teachers how they are to set about teaching and assessing such skills in their students. We do not have a coherent, regular process to incorporate the formal teaching of these skills to students. Part of this, in my opinion, stems from teachers not having these skills clearly defined. That is now a major focus of this project, to enable teaching and learning. The conversations with my peers about these skills have been useful professional development. Just by reflecting on how we teach and assess higher order thinking, we are starting to make our actions align with our intentions.

That we do not have a formal plan for teaching these skills reminds me of this blog post by Grant Wiggins, author of Understanding by Design (UbD). He refers to inferencing, a higher order skill, of drawing reasoned conclusions from evidence, with a quote that suggests that it cannot be taught, when of course it can. This is a particular skill that needs to be taught in the science classroom. The other skills mentioned above also need to be taught.

I have attached a table below - that begins to define what these higher order skills are, and how they can be taught and assessed. Let me know what you think!

Teaching activities
Analysing  and interpreting information
Students being exposed to quantitative data and being asked to draw conclusions

Students being exposed to qualitative data and being asked to draw conclusions

Students drawing valid, logical, reasoned conclusions
Students regular handling data; from practice questions and from experiments

Students being asked to observe patterns or trends in quantitative data

Students practicing drawing rational conclusions

Students being provided with explicit examples of illogical and irrational conclusions and having these explained
Test questions that provide scenarios for students to interpret

Students being given experimental results where errors have been made during the experiment and they have to interpret the effect on the outcome

Students being asked about a range of possible conclusions drawn about an experiment and needing to describe them as valid/invalid and provide a rational explanation

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Do you have the HOTS for science? Part 1

Do your students have the higher order thinking skills required for success in science?

What are such skills?

Do you teach these skills regularly and actively?

Do you assess these skills regularly and validly?

I am currently investigating all of these questions in an ongoing project at my school. I am trying to change what happens in terms of the teaching and learning at senior school science to allow for development of higher order thinking skills in students. I believe that they will experience more success in this way as they are able to tackle more advanced problems.

What I have found through surveying staff attitudes at my school is that teachers do not feel as though higher-order thinking skills is something that is appropriately and regularly taught at our school. In particular, they feel as though their assessments lack demanding, unfamiliar contexts; open-ended or complex tasks and instead seem to focus on basic testing of surface level understanding or knowledge. They also felt that students lacked sufficient higher-order thinking skills for success in science, but that this was something they were grappling with, or trying to achieve.

Survey questions regarding HOTs 
Does the schools approach to assessment encourage students to apply knowledge in demanding, unfamiliar situations?Does the school’s approach to assessment give students sound opportunities to complete complex, open ended, multifaceted tasks?Does the school’s approach to assessment allow students to be rewarded for demonstrating higher order thinking skills?In terms of assessing higher order thinking in science, describe how you think the school does this:In terms of assessing higher order thinking in science, describe how you think the school could do this better:Provide an example of how you recently assessed higher order thinking skills in science:Do you feel your students have sufficient higher order thinking skills?Do you feel that your explicitly teach students how to develop these thinking skills?

My ambition is to change how:

We define higher order thinking skills
We assess higher order thinking skills
We teach higher order thinking skills

In doing this, I feel that more students will find success in their science education. Lower level ability students will be able to tackle more difficult problem solving, and higher ability students will be able to be challenged by rigorous and unfamiliar content. I want my science teachers to feel that they know how to adequately plan for and teach these skills too.


I was lucky enough to take some students from my school to our sister school to attend a regional constitutional convention today. The students were focused on examining the question 

"Are the disadvantaged being left behind by Australia's social and economic policies?".

It was really powerful to have students invoked in learning outside of their normal environments. Students who are not always active and contributing in class were heavily involved in discussions around politics, economics and social justice. They were presented to by two guest speakers, Dr Jonathan Welch and James Merlino (our local MP) who had differing interpretations of the topic.

What really struck me was how much the students already knew about aspects of this issue, and how they were willing to put their ideas forward and make suggestions as to policy decisions. It was also clear that not many of the students had a clear understanding of what disadvantage was, and this raised valid discussions itself. One of my students said to me after that the day had really opened his eyes to how much goes on in Australia - I was genuinely surprised by this, but happy that it had done so.

Taking the students out of their normal environment was really powerful. Obviously we need to have regular learning environments for students to develop most successfully, but clearly, there is also an important need to occasionally challenge the status quo and do something different. Pushing the students into disequilibrium with a completely novel experience allows the students to experience a different perspective, particularly in terms of how they view themselves.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Experimental data vs theoretical predictions - a case of cognitive dissonance

Biology practical investigation changes my thinking about teaching science
I was teaching my VCE biology class on Friday and we were doing some practical work investigating optimum pH range for enzymes, as we have been learning about cellular structure, components and processes (FYI - we switch units 1 and 2 around to match up with unit 3 for year 12 for those who were concerned!).

The practical activity we were doing consisted of measuring the production of oxygen gas, as catalase, an enzyme present in liver tissue decomposed hydrogen peroxide:

H2O2(l) --> H2O(l) + O2(g)

The practical is meant to demonstrate that at a certain level of acidity (around neutral pH) the enzyme is most effective and produces the greatest amount of oxygen gas over the timeframe measured. When we graph the results (oxygen produced vs pH) we would expect to see a bump around neutral pH that represents that optimum range, i.e. most effective catalysis for our enzyme.

There are two VCE biology classes, and the other biology teacher had told me at lunchtime that her class results were quite inconsistent and the resultant curve they found was almost exactly the opposite of what is predicted by the theory and the literature. In addition she mentioned that the neutral pH buffer used gave the lowest result for oxygen produced (counter intuitively - it should be the highest, showing that the enzyme is adapted for use in a biological setting, i.e. the body). I began to think that the buffer might be suspect, so I ran the experiment alongside my students, and used plain water in place of  the buffer solution (to approximate neutral).

Data handling and sources of error
My results gave me the expected curve for optimum range for an enzyme, but I found that all my students had results that were incredibly inaccurate. I found this quite strange, but was able to turn the class into a discussion of experimental design, data handling and how our expectations can influence the results when we are not careful. I think the students found it quite powerful as well - I freehand sketched all their results on the board immediately (quicker than computer graphing in real time - although I have attached the graphs below) and we were able to discuss all the results. This, in conjunction with some recent student response to practical work (illogical conclusions, conflation of cause and effect, inaccuracies in handling data) has really made me think about what is important in teaching science.

There is a huge range of variation in results! I have not labelled the axes; vertical axis is cm of oxygen produced and horizontal is pH.

How important is visual/data literacy?
I have having a conversation on LinkedIn recently, after posting to ask about the essential elements of science pedagogy, and a recent question brought up in the discussion was around the importance of visual literacy. It really got me thinking about what students do as data interpretation. I have found that through my own science education, I have developed strong data analysis and interpreting skills. Many of my students do not have a particularly high level of ability in this skill.

In the case of this practical, had I not also conducted an accurate investigation, students would be left with unsatisfactory results and a theoretical concept that did not match their findings - how often does this happen with student experimentation? What conclusions would they draw from this? Would they try and fudge the results? Become confused? Find science frustrating?

I found it really powerful to be able to link the important practices of science such as being accurate in the lab and looking at experimental data and interpreting it, and it has prompted my thinking about what skills need to be taught in the science class. It makes feel that having these kind of experiences can be important formative experiences for science students. They get to create data and then critically evaluate whether or not it is accurate, and reflect on why it might be different. It also makes me realise how many of the skills I take for granted (representing data graphically, choosing the best representation, being aware of the limitations of data) I need to formally model and teach if I am to get the most out of my students. This is also making me think about critical thinking and other higher order thinking skills, but I will save that for other posts.

What elements of science that you take for granted are you not teaching your students explicitly? OR what elements have you come to realise that you do need to explicitly teach?

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Teaching science in a fake real world context

Or action research into a contextual science unit...

At my school we ran a science unit at year eight, looking to provide a real-world context for students who were learning physics. They were to design and build a model house, and attempt to solve the problem of inefficient housing, in terms of heat loss. The AusVELS curriculum for level eight physical sciences states:

Energy appears in different forms including movement (kinetic energy), heat and potential energy, and causes change within systems

The focus with the project was to have students using this context to deepen their understanding of energy transfers, of efficiency, of energy types by using a project which was hopefully student-led. This project was an offshoot of a pilot we ran in year ten chemistry/physics called Future Energies and Sustainability which had a similar focus. Both projects were designed to have a real world context and focus, and then use this to help students learn about the particular physical science concepts that were mandated by the relevant curricula.

For this year eight project I was interested in knowing: is there a benefit to a contextual science unit in the St Joseph’s Science Curriculum in terms of teaching and learning, and student attitudes?
Student attitudes towards science were surveyed before and after the unit. 11 different categories were ranked on a four-point Likert scale from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree. They were also asked to describe what happens in their science class, and what it felt like to be in their science class.

These are the results:

Prior to contextual unit - What happens in your science class?

After contextual unit - What happens in your science class?

Prior to contextual unit - What does your science class feel like?

After contextual unit - What does your science class feel like?

The survey results on attitudes

I am going to leave it at that for now and will follow up with what I read from these results....