Teaching for Learning Conference 2011

This year, I have the opportunity to attend all four days of this annual conference and I am very excited by this.

Day 1

The first session attended was with Judy Willis. I have recently bought Judy’s book, Learning to Love Math, and I was interested to hear what she had to say given her background as a neurologist and teacher of mathematics. I find the brain research links to learning fascinating and they so often confirm my experiences in noticing how kids learn. She started by mentioning her three step plan for improved learning – R for reach students’ attention, A for attitude and the affective behaviors students entertain, and D for developing motivation and perseverance. The brain converts sensory information into learning. Only the person who THINKS, learns. It does this by firstly filtering inpsut through the RAS system of the brain that filters incoming information from the 2000 bits the brain receives every second. This filtering is mostly involuntary. With practice, we can select which bits of information we pay attention to. If teachers can gain attention, we are off to a good start. It’s not that students are not paying attention…..we all pay attention to 2000 things every second, it is more about noticing the information we want to focus on. Novelty and curiosity are the prime ways in which we can attain students’ focus. Something unexpected. She highly recommends the use of predictions in class to gain the brain’s attention. Ask a question and compel every student to make a prediction on the response. This means every student is engaged and will lead to sustained attention. The goal is to move from passive inattention to active participation. Mini whiteboards are a good way to gather these predictions quickly. She pleaded with us to use curiosity as a routine in every class. This will improve focus and resilience as students become used to new and different situations and academic risk-taking in the repeated prediction-making.

Secondly, the information has to get through the emotional filter, the amygdala. This is the emotional switching station and leads to affective behaviours. When the amygdala is stressed, it leads to the flight, fight or freeze responses. Things that can stress the amygdala are: the fear of being wrong, test-taking anxiety, frustration with difficult material and boredom from lack of stimulation. The flight response manifests in the classroom as withdrawal (or, as I have seen, students who try and regain their self-esteem by referring to some other activity in which they experienced success), the fight response as disruptive behaviour and the freeze response as zoning out. To try and address these responses, teachers need to take away any feelings of threat in an academic setting. Participation fear can be reduced by the use of the mini whiteboards or other forms of formative assessment. The goal is to move information from the lower reactive brain to the upper thinking brain. Teachers can provide achievable challenge and awareness of incremental progress. Activities that promote dopamine can also assist. Increasing dopamine leads to feelings of pleasure, curiosity and inspiration, motivation, persistence and perseverance and creative imagination.

Thirdly, to become a memory, consolidation is needed. The brain needs to recognise a pattern and it files information according to the perceived pattern. This means it is very important for teachers to determine prior knowledge in order for the brain to file it together and make connections.

The second session was Robert Marzano talking about formative assessment and standards-based grading.  He said that assessment is not just a labelling device. With NAPLAN testing just recently completed in Australia, it was interesting to hear him say that large standardised testing tells us virtually zero about individual student’s learning. It says a little about a class and a little more about a school. Tellingly, research indicates that there is about 87% reliability between these test results and a student’s ability overall but only 33% and 57% reliability between what score a student receives on the subscale test items and their actual ability level in those items. For example, if there are 4 questions on decimals, then the performance on these test items is only 33-57% reliable in indicating a student’s actual ability with decimals. So one wonders the point of the Myschool results display. Particularly the lovely new ‘gradient’ graph showing the growth of the same cohort of students in a school from Y7 to Y9 by a line joining two single data points representing the average performance in each year level. Every score has an error associated with it and what this score actually tells us. Averages should be indicated by a performance band that includes a 90-95% confidence interval…like the VCE scores. It would make more sense to show these bands in Y7 and Y9 to honestly reflect the error inherent in making conclusions about what this one-off test data can show us.

After this discussion, Marzano then focussed on how we should be grading work on a 4-point rubric scale that takes into account the types of questions used on assessments – low-level recall questions, standard applications and transfer of knowledge questions that test understanding. Interesting stuff that makes the type of learning more important in grading but I was unconvinced all the time and effort to develop and support such a grading system was worth it in terms of overall improvement in student learning. It is just another way of coming up with a number to summarise achievement. I think it would be better to focus our time and attention on ways of improving practice.

The final session for the day was with Dylan Wiliam. He made the point that schools need to ask themselves: what are we obsessive about? Then, what should be be obsessive about? We need to focus on what matters. Focus on the things that give us more ‘bang for our buck’. He talked about engineering effective learning environments. He said that teaching was a creative task. It’s not about creating learning in students, nor is it about being a ‘facilitator’ on the side. He spoke of the pedagogy of engagement and how important it was to involve all students in learning – no student should be able to hide in a class. This was a common theme..the ‘no opt out’ message. Wiliam was insistent that discipline knowledge was important – that there are ways of thinking in each discipline that deserve to be studied in their own rights and not muddied in integrated units. How important it was to develop disciplinary habits of mind.

He said that we need to determine:

  • What we want people to know
  • What it means to know
  • What happens when people come to know
  • How to get people to know
He also spoke of some interesting research coming out of the University of Hull in the UK where they discovered that the physical context for learning had a great effect. People taught things in one room , for example, can recall it better when tested in the same room…or underwater…or drunk….
He said that the environment we provide for learning has an influence on students. It needs to be one of high cognitive demand, inclusive and obligatory (no opt out again). And how assessment is the only way to find out what has been learned from what has been taught. He talked about pedagogies of contingency and how teaching should be contingent on what is known and what has been learnt.
And, in a nice link to the information we heard at the Marzano session, he mentioned how data should not be pushed onto schools and teachers and these agencies asked to analyse and explain the data. Instead, teachers and schools need to make a decision as to what they want to investigate then pull in that data according to the thing they want to investigate. In this way, the data is learning derived and learning driven. A nice example of what he calls the Educational Positioning System we all need to have on our awareness ‘dashboards’!!
A compelling first day.
Smatterings from Day 2 (getting weary…these long days are proving to be a challenge!!):
We all know that the best way of improving student outcomes is to improve teacher effectiveness. What is the top way of doing this? Not PD, not learning about instructional strategies…..altho’ these are important…the top factor that determines improvement in a teacher’s effectiveness is that teacher’s capacity for, willingness to do, and forward planning provided through self-evaluation. A ‘nice’ visualisation exercise could be to ask teachers to imagine themselves on the front page of The Age after winning “Most Improved Teacher of the Year”. How did they get there?
Just using research-based teaching strategies in the classroom doesn’t, on its own, lead to improved learning. The way in which teachers and students connect in a classroom still controls the degree to which these strategies are effective.
Strategy should always match instructional purpose.
From a Grade 3 student: A thought is made up of concentric circles that form a vortex in your mind.
Mistakes are critical to learning. Active participation is needed so that ALL students have the opprotunity to engage in the learning. It is no longer acceptable for teachers to just accept ‘hands up’. Put a mini whiteboard into every student’s hands so that they all must contribute for every question asked. The brain is wired to want dopamine..the pleasure chemical. When a prediction is made on some aspect of learning (For example: Multiplication always makes bigger. True or False?) then the student has to invest in their current knowledge base to provide some answer. Once they’ve ‘made the bet’ with their response, the brain wants to know the answer. The correct one gives a shot of dopamine. The incorrect response doesn’t give as much dopamine but the brain wants that chemical so badly it takes note of what it did wrong and reconnects the neural framework with the correct information….but only if the student has accessed prior learning to do the prediction. Guessing alone won’t lead to learning. Corrective feedback needs to be almost instantaneous for the knowledge to be laid down correctly in students’ brains. Testing without a demonstration following the test that students can now do something they couldn’t do on the test is useless to formative learning. For example: it is not sufficient to just go through errors made on the board and put copious feedback all over the test on why the student was wrong. It needs to be tested by enacting the same skill or concept to see that the correct links have now been made.
“You will miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”
To reduce student anxiety about making mistakes, teachers can point out when they make their own mistakes and what they learnt from them, provide examples and non-examples of things, when a student response has right and wrong elements, only repeat the right part of the response. Participation fear can be gradually reduced by asking students for their responses to things that don’t have definite right or wrong responses, asking students to head to a corner of the room depending on whether they think it is A, B, C or D. Empowering students by deliberately teaching them about how their brains work best would have to be top of my list of strategies to introduce into my teaching.
Best strategy to get knowledge into long-term memory is for students to re-cast their day’s learning in some new form through graphic organisers or by doing problems associated with the learning of the day…but this must be done within 24 hours of the new information being presented.
“The brain is on the constant look-out for patterns and pleasure”
Aren’t we all????
It’s about the quality of the thinking, not the quantity.
Day 3
Session 1 – Formative Assessment
Where do we teach students how to learn?
Formative assessment gives us the opportunity to be ‘instructionally sensitive’
Formative assessment moves the whole of the achievement band (the range of achievements in a class from lowest to highest) up the continuum AND the kids at the lower end of the band itself . It lessens the gap between the higher and lower achievers in a class.
By focusing attention on the core three questions (Where am I now? Where am I going? How do I build the bridge between these?), students take control of their learning, realise that effort does make a difference (ie a growth mindset is formed) and target that effort onto the specific things they need to work on.
Some ideas: provide learning intentions for homework (eg “You should be able to solve any linear equation involving a single x term”), engage students in self-assessment so that they can watch themselves grow, talk about their growth in specific and deliberate terms (eg “I can see now that you can correctly solve for x if ax = b”) and plan the next steps. Many wonderful ways of enabling students to track their own progress were presented in Cassie Erkens’ session. One of these is as below:
A pre-test is done at the start of a topic to determine prior knowledge. The work is corrected but no comments or score is given. Students look through their corrected work and classify each question according to the headings in the grid.
For example:
Can’t do it Could make a start Completed most of it Completed but wrong Completed and can teach it to others
Q2, 5 Q1,3,6 Q9 Q8 Q4, 7, 10
A distinction was made between ‘success feedback’ and ‘intervention feedback’ and that both need to be given.
Dylan Wiliam: Activating Students as Learners and a resource for Others
Dylan started the session by saying that many students didn’t think their learning had improved over the course of their time in school. He said that many saw their education as a series of steps in which they were being graded more finely each year.
He proposed that weaker students often didn’t know what quality work looked like and that models of this needed to be provided for them. It was useless to use rubrics to show students what success would look like as these students, in particular, didn’t know what the rubric was telling them. Words about quality cannot communicate anything meaningful to students who don’t know what quality already looks like. Trying to describe what a quality learning product would look like via rubrics was problematic as it is often not possible to articulate the qualities of a quality piece of work…except in broad generalities such as “interprets question well”, “knows what topic the question refers to”, “uses the most efficacious solution process”, “uses notation correctly”. Statements on rubrics are not statements of quality – this decision is in our heads.
Sometimes, too, including a specific approach in a criteria rubric can hinder creativity and prevent innovative solutions. Criteria have to be carefully constructed so as not to suggest a specific approach.
The ability to generalise is at the root of assessing quality learning.
Can students transfer learning to another context?
He quoted research that showed how structured peer questioning and structured self-questioning were VERY effective on post-tests and how knowledge was retained far better by these students.  Just listening to a teacher go through the answers was not as effective in retaining the knowledge long term as the students hadn’t invested anything in this learning.
He also briefly talked about collaborative group work and affirmed my own beliefs about this – that, in order for the learning to be effective for all in the group, there needed to be a group goal and individual accountability to ensure that not one student had the opportunity to opt out.
A suggestion made was for students to hand in questions about the day’s learning instead of homework. Alternatively, teachers could divide a class into groups at the end of a lesson then demand a question from each group as their exit pass.
Finally, he spoke about using students to give feedback to teachers on their teaching (and hence on their own learning). A group of students could be trained on how to look at a class to see what constitutes a quality lesson (things like number of students on-task, number of students who appeared to understand the lesson etc) then sent into classes of willing teachers to observe lessons and have a conversation with the teacher afterwards. Not only will this give students a greater understanding of what learning should look like, it gives the teacher some valuable feedback too.
 A paragraph on homework.  We have a 15 minute policy for homework at Y7 & 8 at my school. Teachers are to only set a maximum of 15 minutes of homework.  Some may say that this could cause concern relating to the lack of frequency, related to retention and the non-setting of neural networks due to insufficient practice and related to what might confirm weaker students in their weakness, limit brighter students and encourage and support those who exhibit learned helplessness (“It’s OK not to try if it makes me feel bad”).  I have some sympathy with these concerns but I also understand that students shouldn’t be made to practice something they are doing incorrectly as this sets up incorrect neural frameworks and these are very difficult to shift. The weaker students, in particular, struggle with questions set for homework if they don’t fully grasp the concepts or skills taught in class. In Cassie Erkens’ session, she gave us some scenarios and asked us to discuss whether we thought it was a formative assessment or not. I liked this one on a homework approach:
Ms A has discovered that reteaching something that was learned incorrectly the first time is more challenging than starting from questions. Each day when she assigns homework, she establishes 3 pathways: “I’m going to assign 10 problems tonight. If you are doing the homework and at the end of the problems, you are confident that you have mastered these, please come up with 3 questions I could use on a test on this stuff to check understanding. If you are doing the homework and you’re not certain that you’ve ‘got it’ then try 3-5 more problems and see if you can figure it out. If you are doing the homework and you are getting frustrated and confused, then stop answering the problems and write down a list of your questions regarding when and where you got stuck so I can help you next time”
On Professional Learning Communities
I had an interesting discussion with people around my table about how tricky it was to sometimes compel teachers to see the benefits of professional learning, discussing learning and doing some action research in their classes. I suggested that it was imperative to have a discussion with teachers about the nature of quality learning and what this looks like in their students. Without doubt, the indicators of what constitutes quality learning will include things like reflection and being a life-time learner (or their close cousins).  It is then an easy step to take to make the link to themselves as learners and role models of what quality learning should be. Quality learning is for any learner – student and teacher alike. If we want reflective students then we need to be reflective learners in our teaching practice. Action research is s way of controlling and guiding our own learning in the classroom. We get to choose our own focus, decide on the data or evidence we will collect and own the data we then analyse – not have that data pushed upon us from some external test we didn’t design by some external body (yes, I’m talking about NAPLAN).
Action research is needed to help us articulate what it is we are doing so we can share it with others. So often, teachers can’t verbalise what they do that makes a difference as it’s tacit knowledge.
A number of  very useful templates were shared with participants as to how this data could be gathered in classes – what to look for in terms of the quality of the thinking done by students in a class, the depth of the knowledge gained, who was doing the talking in the class etc.
My brain is getting very full. I need to reflect on all of this knowledge and work out ways in which it could be used to its best effect in my classes, my faculty, my school and beyond.
Final Day’s Sessions
 Recommended by Dylan Wiliam on the change process: Switch by Dan Heath and Chip Heath.
Supporting Professional Development with Teacher Learning Communities – Dylan Wiliam
Dylan believes that these groups discussing teaching and learning should only be for teachers – the ones that have the most effect on improving student learning. No-one without a teaching load should be in them.
He mentioned that there was a knowledge-doing gap. We know what we should be doing but our practice doesn’t reflect this. Why? A myriad of reasons but here are some of the bigger ones….
  1. It is very difficult to change habits and for many of us, we have built up a whole range of these based on our experience
  2. When there are too many choices to make in terms of a teaching moment, we freeze and revert to what we know how to do
  3. In teaching, we need to make immediate choices about what to do with a student response, what question to ask, which direction to take in order to correct a misconception or check for understanding. All of our brainspace is taken up by the moment. To employ a new technique, we need to deliberately plan for this. Life in the classroom is too fast to make that choice on the fly. He quoted one teacher as saying: “Teaching is like engine repair in flight”
He recommends leaders need to:
  1. Follow the bright spots – what are your best teachers doing?
  2. Script the critical moves (ie mandate the structure and the strategy)
  3. Point to the destination (learning intention)
  4. Find the feeling
  5. Shrink the change
  6. Grow your people
  7. Tweak the environment
  8. Build habits
  9. Rally the herd
  10. Create expectations
  11. Ensure the focus stays on what matters in making a difference to student outcomes
  12. Provide time, space and support for innovation
  13. Support risk-taking
Developing a growth mindset for teachers is just as important as building one for students.
He recommends forming teacher learning communities only after a clear purpose is identified. Content first, process second.
His message is to construct a ‘tight but loose’ structure for professional learning in schools. Mandate the theme for improvement eg. everyone focuses on assessment for learning, but leave the choice of what techniques teachers will investigate to the teachers themselves. Not everyone is good at everything and this is as it is meant to be. Management teams don’t function well if all are ‘innovators’ or ‘team players’ or ‘chairperson’. Teachers don’t function at their optimum level if compelled to teach in ways that actually detract from their effectiveness.  It is important to identify and build on people’s strengths (not their weaknesses). So…everyone investigates assessment for learning, everyone talks about it, everyone makes an action plan …. but each teacher chooses how they will do this.
Warning: flexibility is important but some of the modifications and interpretations teachers come away with can be ‘lethal’ so it is necessary to mandate the theme of exploration and have some accountability (check for understanding for teachers) along the journey. All teachers should be aiming for continual improvement.
What to choose? Something that has a direct impact on improving student learning.
Use the following grid to determine whether the theme for exploration passes the ‘effectiveness’ test. Where would you put your theme?


Impact on Improving Student Learning Internal (school-based) External (from State or National imperatives)
Best way to have teachers explore a new thing? Use it in the classroom. For teachers, it is important to start with techniques that can be used so that they ‘act our way into a new way of thinking’, rather than the reverse.
It’s about habit-changing rather than knowledge-giving.
And acceptance of a risk-taking approach to teaching, trying things out.
Does your school have a mechanism for improving teacher practice?
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” Samuel Beckett
Making Strategic, Wise Leadership Decisions – James Nottingham (blog is here)
We all need to start with a vision.
Most schools have mission statements, how many have a documented, shared vision for teaching and learning?He recommends all schools develop such a vision then relate the interview questions for new staff to the elements of the teaching and learning vision.
Unfortunately, many schools jump then from the vision to putting systems and structures in place without first checking what mental models people have in their heads from the vision.
Our mental models drive what we do.
If we believe that intelligence is fixed and some students cannot improve then it is pointless trying to implement a growth mindset agenda in a school. (see here for an article on why attitudes are more important to success than IQ)
Teacher beliefs need to be worked with first.
Too much innovation….innovation fatigue.
It is not strategic to do too many things….you end up as ‘jack of all trades and master of none’.
Focus on one thing…for a number of years…and develop an action plan around this.
There will always be resistance to any change.
He calls the aspect of the change cycle: forming, storming, norming then performing.
At the ‘storming’ stage, he recommends the following when dealing with resistance:
  1. Never ignore a resister. Get to them as fast as you can.
  2. Don’t argue with them. Ask why they’re resisting. 50% of the time it’s because they haven’t properly understood.
  3. If they still resist, tell them the choice you’ve made and invite them to make the same choice.
  4. Thank them and go away…but come back again and again.
An exhausting but invigorating conference. Physically exhausting but many ideas to think about…then to formulate an action plan. ‘Cause it ain’t worth a hill of beans if nothing is done with this.

About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
This entry was posted in Ideas for teaching & learning, Pedagogy, Systems, The discipline, The profession, Things that engage. Bookmark the permalink.

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