Term One Reflections 2015

With one term down now is the perfect time to look back and identify what has worked and suggest some areas for growth ahead of Term Two. It has undoubtedly been a busy time but in the midst of that have emerged ideas that have really worked and our new programmes have had the desired impact in getting the students started. So in no particular order here are my reflections for term one 2015.

1. Stand Up Meetings - Early in term we decided to implement a daily stand-up meeting with the goal of providing a time each day to share ideas and discuss the day ahead. With a new team member, new programmes for Science, History and Mathematics on top of English programmes that had been updated significantly to integrate with the other new programmes it was set to be a busy time with a lot to stay on top of. These meetings have been a definite success and have allowed us to come together as a supportive team. One of the strengths has been the sharing of what is working well within a programme and the ability for others to adopt strategies that helped a team member deliver a successful lesson. The side benefit of these meetings is that each team member has embraced the opportunity to run a ‘morning lines’ with the students and this has resulted in sessions with more meaning than was present when ownership of this time was shared across five teachers. 'Morning lines' is a short assembly used for distributing messages, it still does this but now it includes reflections on the topics we cover, discussion of pastoral care matters and strategies for effective learning delivered with a personal flair unique to each of us. 

2. Real Science - One of the biggest changes has occurred with the introduction of the New Science Curriculum. Our goal for Term One was to have the students engage in true scientific inquiry linked to an exploration of rapid changes at the earths surface due to events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, bush fires and droughts. After an initial period of exploration and research students were given the challenge of creating experiments that would explore their chosen event in greater detail. At this stage we had little idea of what the students might come up with and while we had back-up plans we knew at this stage we would need to remove ourselves from the process. We did not want this to become ‘science by numbers’ where the students simply follow a recipe. The results have been pleasing and the students have risen to the challenge with some quality scientific thinking. Not everything went to plan and some groups in the end had to report that their experiments produced somewhat inconclusive data but in each case they have shown high order thinking fuelled by reflection on what each phase of experimentation revealed. By approaching the task in a cyclical manner with planning, followed by experimenting, followed by reflection then more planning before further experimentation students saw how scientists build and refine their understanding over time.

(1901).  Poster "Don't be in such a hurry gentlemen!". To do with Enabling Acts 1896 leading to 1897 Convention. Deakin Collection . 1901 -  http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/22431900

(1901). Poster "Don't be in such a hurry gentlemen!". To do with Enabling Acts 1896 leading to 1897 Convention. Deakin Collection. 1901 - http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/22431900

3. History - We decided to embrace the new History syllabus this term as the changes to Science dictated a rethink of our Units of Inquiry. The result has been a programme that begins with an in-depth look at the reasons for Australia’s  Federation and moves onto exploring the structures of Australian democracy and Government. We are half way through this programme now and will continue next term with visits to Canberra as part of our camp. Students are enjoying the study thus far and their ability to understand historic concepts is pleasing. As a concluding performance of understanding linked to Federation students engaged in a debate of the issues as perceived by each colony. The result revealed a deep understanding of the issues confronted by the colonies as they debated Federation leading up to 1901 and the passion the students applied to their colony’s perspective was impressive.

4. Mathematics - A shift towards an inquiry approach to mathematics has lifted students’ engagement with the subject and allowed us to build a deeper understanding of the concepts. With less time spent on repetitions students are spending more time applying their knowledge and using skills from one strand in another as they solve and create problems with genuine relevance. From re-designing the playground to using real world data in explorations of directed number, distance and speed students have seen the immediate applicability and interconnectedness of their learning. Having students take on the task of creating challenging mathematical questions for their peers to solve has added a new dimension and another opportunity to demonstrate understanding. 

Artwork by Year Six student completed as part of Optional Homework

Artwork by Year Six student completed as part of Optional Homework

5. Optional Homework - Late in term I asked my students to share what they were most enjoying about their time in Year Six, almost all said homework. This term we decided to offer students an option to design part of their homework. The goal was to give them a choice and a say in how they spent their time. We hoped that this would allow students to pursue a personal interest and to take ownership in their learning. We felt that dictating what homework was done and enforcing its completion with detentions or the like was counterproductive and denied the students an opportunity to develop responsibility. The results have been in most cases fantastic. Students have taken on a rich variety of projects each on a scale that can be completed in a week. We have had artworks, poetry, comedy, animations, coding, cooking, journals, websites, short films and documentaries. Feedback from parents has been positive with many stating that homework is no longer a chore as their children take on responsibility for managing it themselves. Part of the success of the overall programme has been a result of keeping some set items and always providing the option of a teacher set task. This option has been used by students when they either can’t think of a better option or don’t have the time that a self selected task requires. The next phase of this will be to add a more deliberate process of reflection to allow students to identify what they have learned from a particular task.

6. Genius Hour and Parent Partnerships - For 2015 we are shifting from a Personal Passion Project (PPP) that was completed during Term Four to a Genius Hour project that will run throughout the year. Based on the lessons learned with the PPP we have revised our processes for introducing the Genius Hour project and created new planning guides for students to use. This process has been an excellent opportunity for us to reflect on what has worked for us in the past and to combine that with ideas from ‘Design Thinking’ and project management. As a team we engaged with the process of designing the new programme as phase one of our Action Research project. Our ideas have been shared through Google Docs and we were able to engage colleagues from the senior school in this process incorporating their expertise in design thinking. So far we have introduced students to the concepts of project management and design by calling on parent experts. We have been fortunate to have three parents give an hour of their time to share their expertise with the students and called on a large number of parents to assist with a visit to the Powerhouse Museum so the students could see great designs. Next term we move on to the serious phase of the programme as students plan their projects guided by a modified version of “The Design Thinking of Educators’ guide produced by IDEO. By the middle of next term students should have moved from big ideas powered by ‘How might we questions’ through to a workable plan with timelines, resource lists and a clear concept of what success will look like and require. Along the way students will take on the task of gathering peer feedback on their ideas, pitching their ideas to their teachers and refining their plans. It should be an exciting process and one that we hope produces spectacular results.

7. Growth Mindsets – I have introduced the concept of ‘Growth Mindsets’ and the writings of Carol Dweck to students and parents and while it is early days the results are positive. It is a concept that resonates with learners as they struggle with how to measure their success and learn from the times when it does not go as planned. We have started with the idea that fail should be read as F.A.I.L. or first attempt in learning. Over the term I have spoken the students about these ideas on a number of occasions and it is nice to see some using this sort of language in their reflections. As a school we were able to give a Monday Meeting over to the discussion of Carol’s writing and talk of developing growth mindsets is spreading. It has been interesting to discuss this with parents and many have encountered the concept through their professional lives and are keen to share their perspective.

8. The Learner’s Way - This blog you are reading now has become a tool for reflection and engagement with educational ideas. One of my personal goals has been to post to this site on a weekly basis regardless of how busy the week may be. It has allowed me to share my ideas and those developed from the books and other blogs I read with an audience. Some of the more popular postings include one on Finland’s approach to handwriting, reflections on the idea that knowing is obsolete and the future of schools. A post made late last year documenting our eight years of experience with Personal Passion Projects was well received along with an article on Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindsets. For me blogging has become a powerful tool for reflection and thinking about my teaching and teaching in general and is a strategy I recommend highly. 

9. An Excellent Team – I am blessed to work with a team of teachers willing to try new methods, to adopt new technologies and share their ideas and passions while critically reflecting on their practice. Teaching is easy when you are surrounded by people who genuinely care about the quality of learning that occurs in their classrooms and are eager to operate as part of a team. 

By Nigel Coutts