Volume 23 Number 3, September 2008; Pages 293–314
Developments in neuroscientific knowledge hold great promise for our understanding of the learning process, but as yet do not offer practical suggestions for teaching. While neuroscientists and teachers may ‘ask similar questions and explore similar aspects of learning’, they ‘do so in very different ways and at very different levels of abstraction’. The article considers some popularisations of neuroscientific research connected to the notions of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) learning styles which have been widely taken up among educators. The article lists 12 ‘strong’ models of learning styles which have some support from testing and documentation. Lynn Curry published a useful classification of such models in 1983. However, the strong models have been criticised by Frank Coffield et al, and a Demos review found that many proponents of VAK were evasive and uncritical about their evidence base. Other, ‘weak’ models of learning styles, while well received, do little or nothing to demonstrate the validity or reliability of their methodology. The weak models are exemplified in the earlier writings of Alastair Smith, including his Accelerated Learning in Primary Schools (ALPS) model, which emphasised the notion of VAK learning styles. Later Smith gave ‘a highly laudable and honestly expressed retraction’ of some of the main arguments in these writings, but they have remained influential. These earlier writings draw on the controversial field of neuro-linguistic programming. They apply Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), without discussing significant questions from critics of MI, such as whether MI can be assessed validly and reliably, whether MI vary over time, and whether individuals may have varying abilities within any one ‘intelligence’, for example being good at reading but not writing. These writings apply the concept of ‘brain-based learning’, which has also been strongly criticised, for example by Geake and Cooper and Goswami. Beyond these weak models, and of most concern, is the dissemination of some of these ideas in caricatured form by local ‘snake oil peddlers’ with no methodological integrity. Responsibility for vetting such approaches falls not on classroom teachers, who have pressing practical obligations and very limited opportunity for research, but on system authorities, lecturers and senior staff in schools.
Subject HeadingsThought and thinking
Teaching and learning
The submission describes a range of conditions that encourage effective teacher professional development (PD). A major consideration is the nature of the teachers involved. Competent teachers, who possess medium levels of enthusiasm and knowledge, characteristically enjoy teaching mainstream children but not difficult ones; like to learn new strategies but not ‘rock the boat’; accept new initiatives only in token ways, but without articulating objections; complain about workload; and do not pursue further learning. They need to be made individually accountable, for example by training other staff. They do not respond to peer coaching or cluster training. The cynics are knowledgeable but demoralised. They tend to have influence and high positions, complain frequently, lack patience with demanding students and generally prefer their subject area to their actual students. They can be very valuable if re-motivated. Anxious teachers are enthusiastic but lacking in knowledge. They eagerly seek explanations, feedback on performance, and details of procedures and protocols. They are frequently worried about issues concerning classroom management and children who do not respond to mainstream teaching strategies. Typically these teachers are new to their year level or their particular responsibilities, or to teaching itself. They respond well to peer coaching but as far as possible should be distanced from cynics. High flyers are strongly driven, confident and knowledgeable. They are good mentors to anxious teachers. Care should be taken not to burn them out with too many responsibilities and pressures. Struggling teachers are unmotivated poor performers, best dealt with through performance management and retraining for other careers. Effective PD is also encouraged by the use of rubrics, which offer teachers a structured means to plan out their future professional learning. Rubrics can be used by systems, school leaders, and groups of staff to identify staff learning needs and organise ongoing training. Other means to improve PD include hiring inspirational speakers able to generate initial enthusiasm, and external providers able to develop ongoing PD customised to the school’s needs, and subject to regular audit and modification. The submission includes sections relating to Focus Education Australia, the author’s consultancy service.
Subject HeadingsProfessional development
Teaching and learning
Do mathematics textbooks cultivate shallow teaching? Applying the TIMSS Video Study criteria to Australian eighth-grade mathematics textbooks
Volume 20 Number 1, 2008; Pages 81–106
The 1999 TIMSS Video Study examined classroom mathematics practice in the United States and in six countries that performed relatively highly on the TIMSS 1995 tests: Australia, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, the Netherlands and Switzerland. While the Australian lessons used the second-highest proportion of real-life contexts, they also contained a higher amount of repetition than any of the other countries studied. The problems covered in Australian classrooms also showed the lowest average procedural complexity – a measure of how many steps and sub-problems are contained within a problem – and had the lowest number of proofs or verifications. Together these characteristics can be said to constitute ‘shallow teaching syndrome’. To further investigate shallow maths teaching in Australia, nine Year 8 textbooks from four States were examined. The sample included the bestselling textbooks for 2006 in all four States. All 3687 problems in three topics (addition and subtraction of fractions, solving linear equations by doing the same to both sides, and the geometry of triangles and quadrilaterals) were analysed. Problems were classified according to their procedural complexity, the type of solving processes required, the degree of repetition, whether they were ‘application’ problems, and whether they required deductive reasoning. Results indicated that in all textbooks most of the problems were of low procedural complexity. There were also relatively few problems that asked students to make connections between concepts. Results varied widely between books. It is of concern that two of the textbooks with the lowest average procedural complexity were the top sellers in their states. While a certain degree of repetition and scaffolding is necessary, students also need to be given opportunities to choose appropriate strategies themselves. Proofs, verifications and derivations were found in only six of the nine textbooks, and only in the geometry section. It appears that Australian Year 8 students are exposed to relatively few complex problems. The low level of ‘making connections’ problems and the generally low level of procedural complexity is of particular concern for high achieving students. To offer students a balanced experience, textbooks need to contain a greater number of complex problems than is currently the case.
Key Learning AreasMathematics
1 September 2008
The Executive Director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia (ISCA) summarises educational trends impacting on the independent sector. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have sought an end to the traditional ‘public vs private debate’, and it has indeed subsided. The Schools Assistance Bill maintains the independent sector's existing funding arrangements in relation to indexing, funding guarantees, and students’ SES as a criteria for funding (see news item on the Bill in last week's Curriculum Leadership). A review of school funding to be carried out over 2010–2011 will offer an opportunity to consolidate this positive trend. The trend toward a national approach to school policy has become irreversible. Financially the trend involves a shift from State to National Partnership Payments, sharply targeted spending and increased accountability by States. The growing influence of the Australian Government is evident in the national programs covering computers in schools, increases to broadband for schools, and trade training centres. There is an accompanying trend toward centralisation, with agencies such as Treasury and The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet playing a greater role. The publication of school-level data is a powerful international trend and is linked to the Australian Government’s productivity agenda. It affects all three school sectors. All sectors are also expected to take up the trend toward partnerships between schools. Schools are increasingly expected to demonstrate a willingness to cooperate with other schools as a condition for receipt of funding. Funding for students with disabilities should be increased to give parents more opportunity to send these young people to independent schools. The presentation includes a number of tables of statistics relating to the independent sector and comparative data between sectors. (Access the presentation transcript via the Parliamentary Forum 2008 link on the ISCA website.)
Subject HeadingsPrivate schools
Preventing early mathematics difficulties: the feasibility of a rigorous kindergarten mathematics curriculum
Volume 31, Winter 2008; Pages 11–20
There has recently been concern about the relatively poor mathematics performance of students in the United States. The underperformance is arguably due to a lack of firm grounding in mathematics in the early years of primary school. A recent study has explored the feasibility of implementing a structured mathematics curriculum in the first year of primary school. The program, known as Early Learning in Mathematics (ELM), was designed to take advantage of children’s innate and developing sense of number and quantity. Topics covered number sense, geometry, measurement, and mathematical vocabulary. The program involved a half-day professional development session followed by 100 30-minute lessons, designed to be implemented four to five days a week. Lessons were scripted to ensure consistent delivery. All lessons began with a review of previous material, followed by a number of activities that integrate all four topics. Problem-solving activities were the focus of every fifth lesson. To evaluate ELM for effectiveness and ease of implementation, all prep students in 14 primary schools participated in a study. In the first year five schools implemented the program, with four schools serving as comparison schools. In the second year, the curriculum was substantially revised and five new schools were selected as comparison schools. Only data from the second year was analysed. Students given the ELM showed greater improvements in mathematical skills than those who did not participate, a result that was true for both high- and low-achieving students. Teachers’ views of the program were positive, with those who were teaching the program for the second time being particularly enthusiastic. Teachers generally found ELM easy to fit into the school day and found no major obstacles or complications in teaching the program.
Key Learning AreasMathematics
Early childhood education
Teaching metalinguistic awareness and reading comprehension with riddles
Volume 62 Number 2, October 2008; Pages 128–137
Using riddles is a highly engaging and effective way to teach reading comprehension. As well as being something children love, the word play involved in riddles such as How do you stop a skunk from smelling? … You hold its nose! calls for an understanding of linguistic ambiguities. Riddles therefore challenge and develop metalinguistic awareness – the ability to perceive and manipulate language objectively. Phonemic awareness has long been considered important for developing reading skill, but more recently other types of metalinguistic awareness have emerged as also underlying reading comprehension. Understanding that meaning can be ambiguous allows students to think flexibly about words, and prompts them to re-examine a sentence if the meaning is initially unclear. Previous research has found that students’ ability to detect linguistic ambiguities strongly predicts their reading comprehension. Children usually learn to detect lexical ambiguities (those based on the meaning of one word, such as ‘the man had sharp nails’) in Grades 1 and 2, and syntactic ambiguities (based on an ambiguous sentence structure, such as ‘the chicken was ready to eat’) around Grade 3. Several studies have found that interventions in which underachieving readers learned about homonyms, made up jokes and read ambiguous stories were enjoyable and led to substantial improvement in their reading comprehension. When teaching with riddles, teachers should first explain the question–answer structure, repeat the riddle slowly, and then model their thinking in deciphering it. Drawing pictures or using a 3W chart to record Who did What to Whom are good techniques for representing ambiguous meanings. Students can then be asked to nominate a topic and write down a list of keywords. Scaffolded closely by the teacher, they can identify homonyms for as many of the words as possible. For example, for the topic of sport, ‘bat’ is also an animal and ‘ball’ can also be a dance. They then write down a question that leads their audience in one direction, followed by an answer based on the homonym’s second meaning. The activity is easily tailored to individual students’ reading levels. Ideally there should also be some riddle books, such as The Zaniest Riddle Book in the World or Eight Ate: A Feast of Homonym Riddles, available in the classroom.
Key Learning AreasEnglish
Supporting peace education in teacher education programs
Autumn 2008; Pages 20–25
The Hague Agenda for Peace and Justice in the 21st Century emphasises the importance of school-based education in creating a global culture of peace. Primary teacher educators at James Madison University have taken steps to integrate peace education into their curriculum for teachers in training. Instead of creating a new unit, the material was integrated into three existing courses: Creativity and the Arts in Elementary Education, Social Studies Methods and Children’s Literature. The program encouraged a broad exploration of peaceful development, rather than the conflict-based approaches that have been common in the past. For the course Creativity and the Arts in Elementary Education, students studied a photographic exhibit on Mahatma Gandhi. They considered the ways in which his non-violent methods of solving social problems could be seen as creative. The Social Studies Methods course included two assignments related to peace education. The first involved a real campus-based issue that affected the students and on which they took action, which allowed them to explore the concepts of advocacy, equity and justice in circumstances that were personally relevant. The second assignment required them to research an event occurring between the 1950s and 1970s and present their findings creatively. In the Children’s Literature course, several books were chosen that covered historical events such as the Virginia civil rights strategy and the World War II Japanese internment camps. The young protagonists in these books show moral strength and dignity while negotiating extremely difficult circumstances. The teaching students responded positively to the peace education program, commenting that it encouraged open-mindedness and empowerment to deal with challenging issues. The Educating for Peace website, run by the Global Education Network, contains an extensive list of resources for peace education.
Volume 66 Number 3, November 2008; Pages 38–42
The collective mindset of students is often one of the biggest barriers to their achievement. Far too many students simply comply with teacher requests and ‘function like low-level bureaucrats’. Compliant learners tend only to answer teacher questions, while engaged learners raise extra questions and points of view. Compliant learners tend to limit their revision of written work to identified errors, while engaged learners consider overall feedback comments before deciding what to revise. Some problematic beliefs include: seeing the rules of a discipline as based on what the teacher wants, rather than on what professionals in the field do; believing that the teacher’s view is more important than their own; correcting errors rather than looking for the faulty reasoning behind them; focusing on grades rather than written feedback; and assuming that speed is synonymous with intelligence. Educators must show students that these harmful beliefs are not facts. They can focus students on progress rather than on results, and help them to find satisfaction in the process of creating and polishing their work rather than only the end product. Teachers should reassure students that failure is a natural part of the learning process. They might, for example, talk about Thomas Edison’s many failures when inventing the light bulb, or quote scientist Linus Pauling’s comment that ‘the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.’ It is beneficial to consider how classroom rules might stifle debate between students, or how certain assessment tasks favour presentation over high quality thinking. Teachers should allow students to struggle with the material, since struggling to connect ideas develops fluency within a discipline. Attempting to save students and ‘strip the task of the hard parts’ is ultimately counterproductive. Eventually, students’ ideas about learning will change, and they will become more used to making mistakes and not understanding the first time. They will also develop faith in their own capacity to learn, and experience the joy, openness to ambiguity, and fascination inherent in engaged learning.
Psychology of learning
Summer homework: is it as effective as we think?
Summer 2008; Pages 106–113
The value of homework, especially at primary-school level, has been debated for over 150 years. Educators in the late 1800s believed that the mind functioned like a muscle, and needed to be exercised with memorisation practice. The years around 1930, especially in the United States, saw increasing debate over the issue, with concerns that children might learn incorrectly if no teacher were around to supervise. There were also strong parental arguments that homework interfered with chores, jobs and outdoor playtime, a theme also covered in the recent book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The Cold War period saw a renewed interest in homework in the United States, as a means to keep up in an increasingly technology-based world. Research on the value of homework since 1937 has yielded inconclusive findings. The small amount of research focusing on summer homework has suggested benefits for students, particularly in the area of reading. For example, one study of 30 remedial readers who were asked to read aloud to a voicemail account for three minutes a day showed that the vast majority maintained or improved their skills over the summer. The present study was spurred by the principal’s assignment of the book The End of Homework to staff for reading and discussion. Surveys of teachers and parents indicated that there were enough perceived benefits to continue assigning summer homework, but the amount of maths was considerably reduced and children were given more freedom in the reading and writing assignments. When the new program was evaluated, teachers commented that the 16 pages of maths homework was enough to keep most students from losing skills. They added that more than this was usually unnecessary, since maths needs to be reviewed at the start of the school year anyway. Although the academic value of the creative writing assignment was contentious, teachers were now learning more about students’ interests from their reading and writing assignment choices. Most teachers did see carefully targeted summer homework as beneficial for skill retention in reading, writing and maths, general organisational skills, and refocusing students’ minds on the upcoming school year.
Volume 56 Number 3, September 2008; Pages 272–285
Rationalist philosophers of education tend to argue that education is for training and shaping the mind, with the body taking no real part in the conventional schooling process. Students are generally not considered to be better- or worse-educated because of hand–eye coordination or body shape. A number of claims have been made that challenge this conception, arguing that dance or other physical activities should play a special role in the school curriculum. It is argued here that none of these claims are strong enough to be considered educationally significant. The first claim is that dance and movement constitute unique forms of language with their own intrinsic value, and therefore should be taught in that capacity. However, body language is unable to portray the complex propositional structures of verbal language: it is ‘extremely clumsy and limited – is, in short, a very inferior mode of communication.’ The second claim is that physical activity is an alternative route to reaching some of the same understandings as can be reached in other ways, for example through other forms of teamwork or structured challenges. Arguments that sport builds character, cooperation and team spirit, and offers students non-academic ways to display their talents, fall into this category. These arguments are sound; however there is little evidence to suggest that sport should be specifically favoured over other activities as a way to develop these qualities. The final claim is that movement and dance provide access to a unique kind of knowledge that can only be obtained through practice. While this is undoubtedly true to some extent, whether students really need to develop intimate and very specific knowledge about one type of movement (such as ballet, for example) is questionable. Education research has largely tended to neglect the body, and has avoided carefully considering the important question of exactly how much time should be devoted to training the body inside of school hours. While schools should definitely attend to the physical fitness and health of their students, exactly how this should be done is not conclusively shown in literature on the topic to date.
Structured sports and physical activities: their critical role
Spring 2008; Pages 27–29
The benefits of exercise and physical activity for children are well documented. A recent Canadian study has investigated the relationship between children’s participation in structured sports and physical activities and their overall levels of happiness and wellbeing. Eleven Grade 5 students at one school in a middle-sized city completed daily logs, recording how they spent their time over two full school days. The days were broken up into four time blocks: before school, at school, after school, and after dinner. For each time block children made a note of their activities, the location, the start and end time of the activities, and with whom the activities occurred. On average, 6.3 hours were spent in school, 17 minutes in structured non-sport activities such as music lessons or Scouts, and 41 minutes in multimedia activities such as television or Internet surfing. Structured physical activities (those facilitated by an adult leader) accounted for 31 minutes per day and unstructured physical activities for 33 minutes. Importantly, children who were involved in structured sports and physical activities regarded 45 per cent of their day as ‘lots of fun’, while those not involved in any structured physical activity only gave this rating to 8 per cent of their day. This finding clearly suggests that participating in structured sports increases the happiness of students even at times when they are not engaged in these activities. Children participating in structured physical activity were also significantly more active overall than those who did not participate. Schools have an important role to play in making extracurricular sporting activities available to children, and can combat the tendency toward elitism in school sport in a number of ways. Non-scheduled school time, such as lunch breaks or recess, can be utilised. Opportunities should be created for children of all skill levels to participate, perhaps through the creative use of classroom and outdoor school space. A multitude of online resources are available through government and external websites.
Key Learning AreasHealth and Physical Education
Planning for interdisciplinary learning: can it be done?
Volume 38 Number 3, 2008; Pages 21–22
The Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) have been in place for nearly three years. A major feature of the framework is interdisciplinary learning, and there have been positive results from Victorian schools after implementing this practice. Schools commonly use three types of interdisciplinary programs: integrated programs, in which two or more subject disciplines address a broad topic or theme; subject-based programs, in which existing subjects are broadened to include standards from the Interdisciplinary and Physical, Personal and Social Learning strands; and extended projects, in which students learn and apply their knowledge and skills in a number of interrelated domains. Methods tend to vary across schools and implementation is not without its challenges. There is consensus among teachers that a whole school approach to planning and implementation is most effective. This allows for a clear allocation of roles and responsibilities within the program. A whole school curriculum audit can be conducted to detect opportunities for incorporating extra material into current studies, or to identify the need for a new program. Whole school approaches help to ensure adequate time for teacher collaboration, planning and evaluation, and facilitate planning for ongoing professional learning. Programs can also be evaluated regularly on a whole school basis. Strong leadership is vital for the success of interdisciplinary programs, with shared vision, change management expertise, and support for professional dialogue regarded as extremely valuable. Useful resources for interdisciplinary learning, including sample work units, are available from the VELS website. Whole school planning advice is to be published in the near future.
Subject HeadingsInterdisciplinary learning
Leadership, confidence and inspiration for all
Spring 2008; Pages 34–36
The 2004 tsunami destroyed large parts of the Maldives archipelago. The mass relocations and population shifts caused by the tsunami meant that many schools were forced to cope with an influx of new enrolments. Victoria’s Apollo Bay community has recently been involved in fundraising and teacher mentoring activities to support two Maldivian schools, located on the islands of Funadhoo and Ungoofaaru. Since the tsunami, the community has sponsored four-week study tours for seven teaching staff from the Maldives to visit Apollo Bay P–12 College. The Maldivian teachers observed primary and secondary classes of various sizes, finding techniques for teaching larger classes particularly valuable in the wake of their recent enrolment increases. They gained ideas for creating their own classroom activities, identifying individual student needs, and involving parents in their child’s schooling. In a reciprocal arrangement, two staff from Apollo Bay P–12 College funded their own two-week trips to the Maldives in 2006. They were involved in mentoring staff, holding staff conferences, and demonstrating teaching and learning approaches for Grades 1–9. They also discussed the value of theme-based teaching and helped to sort books and resources according to themes that could be used in the future. Maldivian staff found the mentoring beneficial, and the Australian teachers formed close relationships with teaching staff and received invitations to the Grade 10 students’ graduation. The program has had a strong impact on both schools. A pen pal system has been established between students at the Australian and Maldivian schools, and a group of Apollo Bay students recently spent ten days in the Maldives when returning from a trekking trip. Further developments may include student exchanges and mentoring via video conferencing.
There are no Conferences available in this issue.