Large scale assessment: poison or panacea?
17 February 2010; Pages 13–14
Large-scale assessment programs have been controversial in education. Policymakers have given strong support to such programs, believing that measuring students' progress against explicit goals will contribute to the improvement of students' learning. Educators, however, have often expressed the concern that large-scale assessments encourage an excessive and misleading focus on test results, particularly within the mass media, and they fear that learning will actually be impeded as a consequence. Large-scale assessment programs were implemented by individual state and territory education systems during the 1970s and 1980s. Educators were generally reluctant to participate, and in this context systems did not publish school-by-school test results. In 1997 jurisdictions agreed to report nationally comparable data on student results, and after unsuccessful efforts to equate their testing programs they agreed in 2004 to take part in a national testing program. NAPLAN tests, first conducted in 2008, substantially continue the approach taken by previous jurisdiction-level test programs. Education systems believe that NAPLAN test results should inform practice from the level of the individual classroom to broad system policy. However, the media's eagerness to draw on these test results has sometimes led to impressionistic, invalid conclusions from data, and researcher Margaret Wu has highlighted the danger of over-interpreting NAPLAN figures. The best approach that educators can take in response to these results is to study their own students' test results as effectively as possible in order to improve these students' learning. Teachers need to scrutinise the data at group and student levels; compare it to their own prior knowledge of the students' achievement, and follow up any inconsistencies; identify wider patterns in the results; compare them to national, state and like-school results; and draw at least tentative conclusions relating to achievement. This approach allows educators to confront not only unwarranted judgements made about their students' results, but also any allegations that they themselves have 'over-cooked' their analyses of the results.
Teaching and learning
Talking science: developing a discourse of inquiry
Volume 56 Number 1, March 2010; Pages 17–22
The role of discussion in the science classroom is a vitally important part of the inquiry-based model of learning, but is often overlooked. The type of discussion that takes place should vary with the phase of scientific inquiry being pursued. The author describes an approach to these discussions that combines Bybee's five-phase model of science teaching and learning with the framework used by Mortimer and Scott to categorise types of classroom discourse. During the first two phases described by Bybee, Engage and Explore, discussion should be dialogic, considering varying points of view, and interactive, allowing many voices to be heard. During the Explain phase that follows, students' experiences and explanations of scientific phenomena are established on a fully scientific basis. Initially this phase also requires interactive and dialogic discourse, but its dialogic element shifts to authoritative discourse where the teacher's viewpoint predominates, and interactivity takes the form of teacher-led questions and answers designed to reinforce scientific understandings. This then gives way to non-interactive discourse, where the teacher summarises scientifically valid explanations of phenomena. During the third and fourth phases, called Elaborate and Evaluate, students apply and therefore deepen their scientific understandings through self-planned investigations, and complete rich evaluation tasks. Interactive and dialogic communication is required when the class discusses the ideas to be applied in the student investigations and evaluations. At times, however, dialogic communication will be replaced by authoritative discourse as the teacher 'scaffolds the students' reasoning and interpretation of experimental data' and develops a scientific explanation of results. Students' learning of science is greatly assisted by a helpful classroom culture. Such a culture is collective, with tasks addressed at group or whole-class level; reciprocal, in that teachers and students listen to each other and consider various ideas; supportive, viewing errors as essential to learning rather than shameful; cumulative, with learners building on their own and other's ideas; and purposeful in the pursuit of specific educational goals. Good classroom discussion also requires that teachers allow time for students to respond to questions or comments, rather than stepping in prematurely and closing off student contributions.
Key Learning AreasScience
Subject HeadingsTeacher-student relationships
Volume 9 Number 1; Pages 108–129
Mentoring programs offer a valuable way to help prepare leaders to meet the demands of principalship. However, mentoring relationships have traditionally been unequal, and have not drawn enough on the experience of protégés. Using a case study approach, the author examines the mentoring relationship between a new female principal and her female mentor over a two-year period. Both leaders were participants in a program designed to support early-career principals in the USA. As part of the program, the mentor, an experienced principal, received ongoing professional development in coaching and mentoring protégés, and was given specific guidelines about her role as a mentor. These supports were designed to provide a clear accountability framework and clear expectations, as well as to promote a collegial approach to mentoring. The flexible, collegial nature of the program allowed the mentor to take on a variety of different roles as the relationship progressed and the protégé's skills developed. For example, in the early stages of the mentorship, the mentor acted as a navigator and teacher to help the protégé make sense of the portfolio requirements, and to share her knowledge in order to help the protégé make decisions. The role became more facilitative as the relationship progressed, with the mentor providing support to the protégé and acting as a sounding board as the protégé worked to articulate her vision for her school through a five-year planning process. The mentor also modelled problem-solving practices, and the two began to work together to solve problems and reflect on their practice. Mutual learning began to occur, particularly when the two participated in shared activities, and in informal leadership activities that took place outside the formal mentorship program. Both participants reported that the mentoring relationship facilitated both professional and personal growth, and that a strong friendship developed as a result of the mentorship. Leadership programs with clear and well thought-out purposes and that guide participants toward instructional leadership approaches help to facilitate professional and personal learning for both mentor and protégé, and promote leadership capacity.
An opportunity too good to miss!
Summer 2010; Pages 31–33
The construction of a national curriculum offers a good opportunity to incorporate major international developments in the learning of languages. For example, there is now a greater awareness of how language learning is influenced by personal identity and cultural heritage. Language teaching and subject content are becoming more closely integrated, an innovation which has been found to improve academic proficiency as well as time on task, and which has implications for curriculum design. At the same time, language revival studies are also providing new ways to link formal language study and vernacular language usage. A major issue for the new curriculum will be to manage the diversity of needs among language learners in light of the fragmentation and lack of continuity in language education across Australia. The new curriculum will need to establish a common approach to assessment methods and the measurement of achievement. Other issues are how to attract students, retain them until they reach proficiency, and find suitable ways to reward achievement. Currently only about 10% of Year 12 students are studying languages, a 'depressingly low' figure compared to the 44% undertaking language study in 1968. The level of students' take-up and attrition in language study varies widely. At primary level the main determinant appears to be a language's 'learnability' and degree of similarity to English, while at secondary level it is governed by relevance to future employment and to university entrance, difficulty of exams, and 'the traditional rationales of prestige study'. Less thoroughly researched are the impact of government policy, the attitudes of parents and students, and the quality of language teaching, but the persistence of current patterns over the last 20 years suggest that languages are 'relatively resistant to policy influence'.
Key Learning AreasLanguages
Subject HeadingsEducation policy
Language and languages
Languages other than English (LOTE)
The changing context of Chinese second language teaching in Australia
Summer 2010; Pages 34–36
Chinese language learners fall into three distinct categories: second language learners with little or no linguistic or cultural background in the language; heritage language learners, who have cultural ties to the language and speak Mandarin, or other varieties of Chinese, in the home; and recently arrived students who speak Chinese as a first language. These varied cohorts are frequently taught together in the middle years language classroom. While the curriculum taught in such classrooms is designed for students who do not speak Chinese at home, such students are often outnumbered by students in the other two categories, especially in inner-city schools. These situations lead to high rates of attrition among second language learners, reinforcing the impression that Chinese language study only suits learners from Chinese backgrounds. In New South Wales a heritage language course for Years 11 and 12 is being developed by the Board of Studies on behalf of ACACA. The course recognises that heritage learners are more advanced than second language learners but less advanced than the first language students. While this course is a step forward, there is currently no similar level of provision for heritage learners in the middle years. Research needs to be undertaken regarding the learning needs of this group. The Student Achievement in Asian Languages Education (SAALE) project, funded by the NALSSP, is currently investigating the influence of language background on student achievement for Years 6/7, 10 and 12.
Subject HeadingsMiddle schooling
Languages other than English (LOTE)
Mathematics learners and mathematics textbooks: a question of identity? Whose curriculum? Whose mathematics?
Volume 21 Number 1, March 2010; Pages 3–23
Ensuring that mathematics textbooks are tailored to students' interests and aspirations may help improve students' engagement with the subject and encourage further study. The 'Credit' and 'General' versions of two popular middle years mathematics textbooks in Scotland were examined in terms of how well their content related to students' identities and career goals. In addition to a critical analysis of the textbook content, the authors interviewed 48 students about their perceptions of the textbooks. Students were generally positive about the layouts of the textbooks, which used colour to highlight keywords or to shade important explanations. The students tended to prefer working with diagrams rather than more abstract illustrations, which they found could be confusing, or could 'clutter' the page. Analysis of the textbook problems and examples found that they tended disproportionately to involve male characters; female characters were often presented in stereotypical ways, particularly in terms of illustrations. The representation of ethnic-sounding names was low, and students felt that their inclusion was tokenistic. Students also noted the dearth of Scottish-sounding names in the textbooks. The textbooks sought to engage students through using celebrity or humorous names in examples, but many of these references were significantly dated or perceived by students as unnecessary or irrelevant. Both the analysis and student interviews highlighted the fact that the job types used in the textbook problems and examples tended to be those in the manual labour and service professions, with professional and management roles far less evident, especially in the General-level textbooks. This was a point of contention for those using the Credit-level textbook, as these students generally aspired to professional roles in careers such as medicine or law. Given that the mathematics textbook is a central component of the mathematics curriculum, textbook authors and publishers should ensure that these texts reflect everyday experiences and should aim to dispel stereotypes where possible. They should also aim to reflect 'real' contexts, situations and people with which learners can relate.
Key Learning AreasMathematics
Subject HeadingsMiddle schooling
Volume 9 Number 1, January 2010; Pages 49–77
Changing policies that direct the ways students are assigned to schools can affect the distribution of resources for students' learning. The author examined the effects of a shift in policy in Nashville, Tennessee to bar racially based assignment of students to particular schools, an assignment approach that had been used to improve disadvantaged and minority students' chances of receiving equal educational opportunities, in favour of a neighbourhood-based assignment approach. It was assumed that one likely outcome of the new assignment policy would be the 'resegregation' of schools due to the high concentration of minority students living in particular areas. Other concerns related to whether disadvantaged and minority students would have equitable access to high-quality and experienced teachers. These teachers tend to have greater choice regarding their place of employment than newer teachers, and have the means to move away from challenging teaching environments. To address this issue, the district committed to directing resources toward the creation of two school types, called enhanced option and design centre schools. These schools offered smaller than typical student-teacher ratios, additional programs, longer school terms, and high-quality professional development for teachers. However, analysis of student enrolment data indicated that the number of schools that could be considered racially segregated did increase after the policy's introduction, with a greater number of schools serving high proportions of minority students. The overall population of the district also become more diverse and less advantaged. In addition, despite efforts to improve students' access to high-quality education through the provision of additional resources and improved teacher-student ratios, data showed that the teachers employed by the schools in the district tended to be less experienced, non-tenured teachers. However, the data did suggest that the average teacher quality and experience, as measured by salary levels, at the new school types improved somewhat over several years. Measures that could address the issue of teacher quality in disadvantaged areas include basing salaries on location, performance or merit; attempting to improve teacher perceptions of these schools; and guiding the placement of teachers into particular schools. Students could also be assigned to different schools to create schools that teachers may perceive as less challenging.
Subject HeadingsEducation policy
School enrolment levels
United States of America (USA)
26 February 2010; Pages 1–20
Subject HeadingsProfessional development
Race, class and schooling: multicultural families doing the hard work of home literacy in America's inner city
Volume 26 Number 2, March 2010; Pages 140–165
At-home literacy practices can be constrained by a variety of factors. The authors interviewed the parents from three low-socioeconomic families in New York to examine their at-home literacy practices, and how these were shaped by environmental factors. The families were ethnically diverse, with one family being Sudanese, another Vietnamese, and the third European-American. The parents tended to work long hours in low-paying jobs and, other than the European-American family, demonstrated low English proficiency. However, the families had high aspirations for their children, and took their children's education seriously. When at home, and where language skills permitted, parents helped their children with homework. In addition, a variety of literacy resources were provided at home. These resources were used for a variety of purposes, such as for pleasure reading, everyday living, or for study. The parents also attempted to involve their children in literacy learning through participation in cultural activities. However, these attempts to develop their children's literacy identities and skills were curtailed by a variety of barriers. For example, homework that asked parents to read with their children made assumptions about language and culture. Low neighbourhood resources were also an issue, and resulted in bilingual teachers being cut and the local library being closed down. It was these factors, rather than at-home literacy practices, that combined to put the case study children at a disadvantage. Such factors need to be addressed in order to improve outcomes for these children. One way of doing so is by implementing literacy practices that link home and school identities, such as drawing on local news or issues in the classroom. Awareness of students' out-of-school lives can help teachers provide instruction that suits students' needs. The power relationships between the school and its community need to be changed to meet the needs of minority families. Students' cultures and languages should be valued and treated as cultural capital, and schools should offer first-language support to help involve both learners and their families. Bridging school and home cultures and attempting to improve school and neighbourhood environments can help mitigate the impact of factors that constrain literacy development.
Key Learning AreasEnglish
Subject HeadingsSchool culture
United States of America (USA)
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