Posts Tagged ‘21st Century education’

When I first heard about the push to reintroduce Phonics into Year 1 teaching programs, I thought I was hearing things!

Could it be possible that a tried and tested method of teaching kids to read was making a ‘come back’?!

You see ….. when I was a kid ….. learning phonics was a major path to unlocking the mysteries of letters on a page.  Warm memories of sitting on the mat staring at letter combinations and cue cards to help me remember the various letter combinations that made the same sound are as fresh in my memory today as they were when I was very little.

The result?  My ability to pronounce words – as distinct from knowing the meaning of words – is quite straightforward.  Even though I have trouble explaining ‘why it is so’ to those who come to English as a second language, I have clearly internalized a wide range of basic rules.

By the time my son started school though, ‘Whole Language’ was the ‘thing’.  After a couple of years observing that this approach didn’t necessarily suit all learners, I quietly dubbed this new approach as learning to read by osmosis!  Structured instructions had been thrown out the door, immersion in ‘whole language’ was the one and only way.

The sad fact though, ensuring that a generation of children struggled with learning to read, was that this approach just didn’t suit all children.

Building foundations by giving young children a scaffolding on which they can build makes so much more sense.

So it was with much pleasure I recently read an informative article by Kirstie Chlopicki: Why we need the phonics screening test  (Education Review, October 17, 2017; access by subscription to Education Review only unfortunately) which notes that a phonics screening test will soon to be introduced into Australian schools for all Year 1 students.  Acknowledging that children will not learn the complex relationships between sounds and letter symbols in English, a language recognized to be more complex than other languages, unless they are taught “early, explicitly, systematically and regularly” says much for the previous teaching methods.

Announcing the impending introduction of the phonics screening test, Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training has clearly signaled a change in the right direction.

Screening students however is only the first step.

Considering the current frightening literacy levels in a county such as Australia – a developed Western nation – taking action to not just develop but to implement a phonics teaching program is urgent!



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So  ….. could a 15 year old have really nailed the reason for Australia’s falling stakes in the PISA academic analysis game?

Our falling results since PISA’s inception should be a wake-up call to schools and teachers for the need to integrate more engaging ways to educate their older students on the realities of everyday life.

“Why 15-year-olds don’t care about Pisa rankings” Sydney Morning Herald, December 7, 2016 by Paloma Jackson-Vaughan

Arguments presented by 15 year old Paloma Jackson-Vaughan in her well publicized article late last year lays the blame on the fact that her peers simply can’t be bothered engaging with tests such as PISA.  It is, she contends, their lack of motivation to either sit for or apply themselves to the demands of tests that they perceive to have no relevance on their school marks that PISA test scores have fallen.  For good measure, she suggests that high levels of stress endured by this cohort also impact poor performance.

If, she suggests, students better understood the performance of the PISA tests, the results would be different.   After alluding to the fact that Australia lacks the kind of cultural expectation for nationwide academic success held by other countries, she concludes her article by laying the blame for falling standards on teachers’ collective inability to engage students in what she terms ‘realities of everyday life’.

A fairly harsh conclusion, which I am sure riled many a teacher who read these words just prior to the end of the 2016 academic year!

That Australia’s PISA performance has been steadily falling can’t be questioned though.  This short video, which was incorporated into the article by Paloma Jackson-Vaughan, gives a concise and simple explanation of both PISA and Australia’s performance over the last 16 years:


Ranking scales of the 2015 PISA scores certainly reflects poorly on Australia.


While attempts to account for Australia’s falling achievement levels most often revolve around politics and funding given to education, could it be that this 15 year old has opened an unsavoury can of worms?  Could it really be that Australian students are increasingly disinterested in education to the point that they just don’t care?!

Moving from school to school throughout my teaching career, I’ve often been struck by the different ‘feel’ of the school and the different keenness level of students in one school over another.  Why is it, I’ve wondered, are students in one school so enthusiastic and engaged while others in other schools are totally laid back?

Is it the teachers who are at fault, the lesson content/presentation, the school admin, the students themselves, the students’ family socioeconomic status, the value given to school and education by the students’ family or is it just simply the amount of money available to create a more apt learning environment?  Why are some students more motivated and engaged than others?

So … the question remains.  Are the words of this 15 year old  truth or nonsense?

Let me know what you think.

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A collective sigh of relief can be heard from teachers across Australia as we bid farewell to a long and somewhat cold Term 3 to commence a two week school break which will provide just enough time to re-charge our batteries prior to coming back for Term 4 – the last term of the 2016 academic year.

For some it is a time of contemplation.  For others it is a time of anticipation.

For many school administrators though, it is a time of deliberation as they trawl through the range of staffing issues posed by staff resignations.

Resignations, of course, are submitted for a variety of reasons.  New challenges in new teaching positions would, one hope, be the most common reason for submitting a letter of resignation.  Yet, a significant portion of resignations of teaching staff in our schools are from those who have simply had enough.  Either they have reached a suitable age to step into retirement or they have decided that teaching is no longer what they want to do.

It is this significant number of resignations which has me worried.  Sadly, each resignation represents an incredible loss of skill and experience and our school communities are the poorer for their departure.

While I touched on this topic recently in a post which focused on how we should be supporting graduate teachers to ensure they stay in teaching a tad longer than 5-7 years, this time my concern is focused on how schools should be working hard to retain experienced teachers in the profession.

So much has changed over the years I have been in education. Demands on teachers today have dramatically increased from what they used to be:

  • Accountability is high on the agenda.  The onerous amount of accountability required by teachers to work colleagues, department heads, school administration and of course to parents eats away at the time and energy levels of teachers.  On top of teaching duties, accountability has to be fitted into the teacher’s busy week.  Just recently I became aware of one school which requires all teachers to call parents twice a term!
  • School intranets have taken on a life of their own.   Busy teachers today need to find time to document curriculum, record lesson plans, note student achievement on the school intranet so that parents and heads of departments can gain a real picture of what is being taught and how students are progressing.
  • Upskilling, particularly in the use and application of technology in the classroom is a constant requirement.  The expectation of not just learning to use technology but to be confident and able enough to integrate this into day-to-day teaching is a difficult demand for teachers.  For experienced teachers though, this requirement can be quite threatening particularly when learning has to occur on-the-job.
  • New pedagogy coupled with new teaching styles are a dime a dozen in education!  So much time and effort needs to be expended by teachers to master the latest philosophies embedded in ‘flipped classrooms’, ‘visible learning’, ’emotional intelligence’ and ‘differentiated teaching’ to name just a few.   While new methods and teaching ideas should not be discounted, this constitutes yet another demand on teachers’ time and energy.
  • Participation in extra curricula activities often involve evening or weekend commitments.  As schools compete with each other more and more for school enrollments, the variety and number of extra curricula activities have expanded dramatically from previous years.

Clearly the demands on teachers today are much higher than they were not all that long ago.  The ongoing requirement for teachers to stay abreast of new pedagogy, skills, methods and programs is essential.  Yet the shift into 21st education for the set of experienced teachers who are now in their mid to late 40’s and older has not necessarily been smooth or easy.  While a deep passion for teaching is most probably the key factor that keeps many of these teachers in education, rewards and incentives for them in their chosen profession are severely limited.

It so happened that the year I started my teacher training was the year the basic course qualifications were extended.  To my shock, when I graduated and took up my first teaching appointment, my salary was considerably higher than teachers who had been teaching for many years.  Within a few very short years, I found that I had reached the top of the salary scale.  As my years in schools continued, my salary effectively stagnated.  The only way to increase my salary was to take up positions of responsibility which paid an allowance, an appealing choice only if I wanted to devote more of my working time to administration  rather than teaching.

The lack of rewards and incentives for teachers has been a sad fact for a very long time.

I was thrilled when a year ago the school in which I work decided to recognize exemplary teachers by inviting them to take up two year appointments as ‘master teachers’ a role which had a significant monetary reward.  So chuffed was I at the time that I penned these thoughts off to our school admin:

It is great to see that teachers who excel in the classroom are to be rewarded for their efforts and encouraged to stay in the classroom.   For too long salary increases associated with promotion have been linked to teachers taking on greater administrative responsibility. The introduction of a Level 12 salary positively rewards excellent teachers, giving teachers across the school a tangible professional goal to which they can aspire. Such an excellent incentive will also positively impact students’ achievement.

So when I read an article in the news last week – $76,919 max: how teacher pay peaks and how the government wants to fix it The Age, September 15, 2016 –  I was equally thrilled to learn that the concept of salary incentives to encourage experienced teachers to remain in the classroom was finally being considered by Education Minister Simon Birmingham.  Recognizing OECD figures highlighting that “teacher pay in Australia levels out after around 10 years of service compared to higher-performing countries where the increases are more staggered”

The Turnbull government is pushing for teachers’ salaries to be linked more closely to their skills rather than how many years they have spent in the classroom.”

With support from Australian Education Union President Correna Haythorpe who stated that

“Experienced classroom teachers should be recognised and rewarded for their high levels of knowledge and skill and their contribution to schools, without having to move into administrative roles,”

it seems that an impasse that has existed for Australian educators is at last being addressed.

One can only hope that the process of introducing such salary incentives occurs quickly, before all the experienced teachers hand in their resignations!!

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The joy of learning and the joy of reading are two topics I am deeply passionate about.

So when I heard that Professor Stephen Krashen, a world leader on the topic of literacy, was touring Australia last week, I was very keen to attend one of his presentations.   With some disappointment though  I realized that I wouldn’t be able to attend either of his two Melbourne presentations.   Buoyed though by the enthusiasm of a work colleague who did attend saying that he was brilliant, I resolved to do the next best thing and explore the beliefs, research and teachings of this inspiring professor for myself by researching all that is available online.

Ah the joy of online learning!!

To my delight, I found lots by and about this eminent educator and proceeded to devote a number of hours to a self styled ‘online’ learning program and as a result, now feel I’ve got a good handle on how Krashen believes we should be pursuing the ‘teaching’ of reading in our schools.  Most inspiring of all is that Krashen’s approach fits in perfectly with my own beliefs!

Like Krashen, I believe that the best way to teach reading and extend our students’ skills is, quite simply, by having them read!  Exposure to good quality reading material which is readily available, providing positive role models and ensuring that students have as many opportunities to knuckle down and read are essential ingredients to nurture reading.  Reading is not something that can be compartmentalized into English classes and taught.  Indeed reading is a skill and a focus of every school subject and is the reason why in past schools I have created school wide Literary Festivals in which literature across the curriculum was celebrated.  In addition to authors and illustrators,  a wide range of artists, all of whom are united in their passionate desire to engage, stimulate and challenge students with their love of the written and spoken word were included in the Literary Festivals held.  I’ve written extensively about Staging a Successful Literary Festival.

I was very pleased to come across a presentation by Stephen Krashen where he spoke at The University of Georgia College of Education in 2012 on the very same topic as his Melbourne presentation: The Power of Reading.  It was great to listen along and realize that his words illuminated the handout given to me by a work colleague from Krashen’s Melbourne presentation.  As I listened, I found myself jotting down some of the key points he made:

Opening his talk, Krashen aims to debunk the myth that millions are illiterate and that teachers are to blame.  Very few, he says, presumably in relation to US children, are completely and totally illiterate.  The problem he maintains is that demands for literacy have been increasing faster than we cope.  Officially he explains, the lowest 25% (referred to in statistics as the lowest quartile) have low literacy. It is obvious, he says, that there will always be 25% who are at the lowest percentile which does not equate with them being illiterate!

After stating emphatically that he knows how to develop literacy, Krashen gives the simple one word solution:


One kind of reading which works better than anything else, he claims, is the kind of reading we do obsessively and it is called free voluntary reading in which there is no requirement for any kind of formal response.  Krashen has adopted these three words as a slogan, elevating them to a process called Free Voluntary Reading (FVR).  In his online talk, he explains:

There is one kind of reading that works better than any other and it was the kind of reading you did last night before you fell asleep”….. The kind of reading that really counts is the reading you and I do all the time that we do obsessively. We call it Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) … reading because you want to. No book reports. No questions at the end of the chapter. You don’t like the book you put it down and pick up another one. Free Voluntary Reading is the source in my opinion of our reading ability; it’s the source of most of our vocabulary, all of our educated vocabulary just about comes from reading, in most cases, our ability to handle complex grammatical constructions, … most of our ability to spell well…. our ability to write with a good style, much of our knowledge of the world, comes from reading.

Acknowledging that no discussion about reading can be complete without reference to a book by Daniel Faber called Hooked on Reading, published around 1965, in which the notion of Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) is raised as a tool to promote reading, Krashen then spends considerable time detailing the results of research studies which support the value of both FVR and SSR.  The results are profound.

The case for Free Voluntary Reading, discussed at length in his Melbourne presentation, is explained quite fully in The Power of Reading – skip to 15.33 minutes into the video continuing for about four minutes. This explanation is also published in a 1983 article in The Reading Research Quarterly.

Also of interest is his reference to Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) in a study by Elly & Mangubhai in Singapore, which is written up in Language Learning, (at 19.45 minutes into the video) in which he sates:

Students who did reading did better on grammar tests than those who had grammar classes!

Why should this happen?  ….

If you read a lot your knowledge of the conventions of writing , your knowledge of vocabulary and grammar it’s acquired not learned; its subconsciously absorbed, it’s stored deep in your central nervous system, it becomes part of you.   They have no choice but to write well.”

Krashen goes on to give a number of case studies some of which are people reflecting on their reading experience.  The conclusion, he says, he is coming to (at 24.46 minutes) is that:

Children who grow up with poverty, with access to books, are the ones who make it. Those who don’t,  don’t make it.

As someone who has worked in the field of Teacher Librarianship for more than 20 years, Krashen’s endorsement of the value of libraries is profound!  Others writing about the value of libraries, Teacher Librarians and reading field such as SHOUT for Literacy and Libraries also make reference to Krashen’s research, writings and presentations.

As a profession, our role is to promote the value of libraries and the wealth of reading choice they offer students.  It is our professional responsibility to continually remind teachers in our schools the undeniable value that students can gain from engaging with literature for no other reason than the joy of it.  I believe that the continual over-emphasis placed on students by required text study, most often kills the joy of reading.

If an interest in this topic is high on your ‘knowledge’ agenda, I would highly recommend you take an hour and have a listen.

Apart from this video I found a number of other valuable online references, including Krashen’s website and blog, as well as An Introduction to the work of Stephen Krashen where drop down menus give more information on topics of interest.

So, it seems, I have been able to enjoy a professional learning experience virtually.   Wonderful!!

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It’s hard to believe, but the first term (which translates as the first half of Semester 1) of the 2015 school year has already been and gone!   Like my other Australian teaching colleagues, I’m enjoying a little respite with a two week vacation before heading back to school, books and work.

It’s most probably a reflection of my age, that this cartoon, which I came across last year when I was ambling around the web, made me giggle, reminisce and reflect – all at once.  This 1952 Disney short follows Goofy’s attempts to teach, and control, his students.   It’s an old-school cartoon slapstick focusing on old school education, with apples for the teacher, kids using catapults and lots of pointing at maps of the world.

Education sure has moved a long way since we were in school. Yes indeed, as said at the start of the video, teachers must be fair, understanding, honest and intelligent. But we all know that the demands today are so much more than this.

So, even now, when we are taking a break, thoughts continue to swill around:

  • How can we do it better?
  • How can we create more enthusiasm with what we do?
  • How can we ensure that we retain our relevancy in the classroom?

The questions keep coming – don’t they?

Earlier this year I read a great post via my LinkedIn account, a post by James Shea: Facebook and the e-lephant in the room – are you still their teacher?  (January 15, 2015) With a rare clarity, Shea describes the very real situation which all teachers face repeatedly: our students are using apps and web tools that we’ve yet to master.

What you do need to know is that students are using the latest technology to tap into more knowledgeable others: whether that more knowledgeable other is an app, a website or a learning community. Once you realise this you can encourage your students to better evaluate the learning they are getting from this technological more knowledgeable other. You can flip the classroom and get students inspired to use their technology to enhance your lessons, not hinder them.”

How confident are we to let our students enhance what we do in the classroom?  How confident are we to work together with our students, calling on their skills to enhance the lessons we present?

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PhotoMathLaunched just a few days, PhotoMath is a revolutionary app that quite possibly will change the way Math is taught and learned by students in schools.

To use, simply point the app at a math problem so that the smartphone’s camera can instantly scan the problem and provide a solution.   The educational part of it is that it shows the solution – step by step – thereby letting the student learn how to solve the problem.

To quote one of the developers:

PhotoMath is a 21st century evolution of a calculator and it can enable every student to have a math teacher in their pocket.”

While Math education is not my specialty, this certainly does seem to be a groundbreaking development.   The first five minutes of this video shows the developers explaining and giving examples of how it can be used.  It sounds very impressive.

Needless to say I had to give it a go to see if and how it worked.  So I tried my luck with something fairly simple and then a calculation that was just a tad more complex.

Fraction PhotMath

Algebra PhotoMath

Pretty good!  It will be interesting to see if this takes off in schools.

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If you ever have some spare time and want to learn about a new idea, concept or just catch ‘the latest’ then Big Think is a great spot to visit when surfing the web.

Convinced that online learning is the future for us all, my attention was caught when I saw a Big Think video describing a free language-learning platform called Duolingo.   Listening to Luis von Ahn describe the genesis of Duolingo, you kind of end up wondering why this idea hadn’t been put into action before.

Based on a childhood idea he had in which users pay for skills learned by providing services which can be on-sold, Duolingo is based on the premise that around 1.2 billion people in the world learn a second language.   Of this figure, the predominant language learned is English and the reason for learning a second language is to get a better job.  Most of these people, they found, come from a low socioeconomic background.  In short, von Ahn says:

Most people learning a second language are poor people learning English to make more money.”

When something is offered for free, it is necessary to figure out to ensure that it is sustainable.  So when people learn a language online for free using Duolingo, they are offered an opportunity to put into practice what they have learned by translating the English learned into their native language.  A few people translate the one copy and then discuss it to come up with the ‘best’ translation.  This translation is then sold, with the money received financing the cost of providing the free program.   One of Duolingo’s best customers is CNN.

A pretty simple process when you think about it!

Since launching this online language learning program just two years ago, Duolingo now has over 42 million users worldwide and has become the most popular way of learning English in the world.   For millions of people, many of whom are from a low socioeconomic background, free access offered by this program can be life changing.

Check out Luis von Ahn’s description on Big Think as he describes this revolutionary language learning program, then check out Duolingo online.  And if you are really keen, go ahead and download the Duolingo AppApple’s 2013 App of the Year!

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