Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: May 2011

And the thesis is complete, what's next?

Just after 9:30pm last Wednesday I read an email from the Dean and Director of the ANU College of Business and Economics congratulating me on the fact that my thesis had been accepted without revision by the examiners and the institution. Needless to say that it was good news.!/djplaner/status/70817513038036993

Celebrations, however, were somewhat muted and restricted to the above tweet and a couple of drinks the following night. Celebrations, like blogging, had become victim of circumstance. Circumstances that included: being a student teacher placed at a local high school 4 days a week and having to prepare and deliver an increasing number of lessons, at the same time having to complete University assignments, spend time with my family, and most recently recover from the flu.

Most of these are on-going tasks, but I thought I’d take a bit of time to reflect. After all it is Friday and I currently feel like I’m getting a little ahead on tasks, which I fear is more a false dawn.

The value of a thesis

Over recent years, especially the last couple, I’ve seen quite a bit written about the value of a PhD thesis. Leigh Blackall has embarked on a PhD his way after identifying several limitations with more traditional practice. Sarah Thorneycroft has been doing work around traditional academic publishing and then there’s the more recent news (mostly out of the US) about there being an over-supply of PhD graduates. And that’s just the few that I’ve gleaned while I’ve been doing an ostrich impression and focusing on getting the thesis done and thinking about teaching. I really should make the time at some stage to follow what these and other folk are doing.

So, while it’s finished, is there still value in a PhD? Especially since I’m moving away from academia into high school teaching?

This was a question that struck me really quite hard early in my high school prac teaching experience. During the first mathematics class I’d taught with one group of students who are largely disengaged. One of the students said, “I’ve never passed a math class.” She then proceeded to quite comfortably complete a set of fairly abstract algebra exercises with a minimum of assistance. It became obvious that there was a lot of room for value generation in this class. Value that could have some significant impact on the lives of students.

What value is there in a PhD? Certainly I don’t see mine ever having the same sort of impact as a good high school teacher. And that’s with a thesis that generated a journal paper that has a Google Scholar citation count of 197 and over 2000 visits to the thesis page on my blog.

The common refrain I hear in Academia is that the PhD is just the entry ticket into Academia. That it’s your on-going work that will make the contribution and have the impact. But frankly, my experiences and observations of academia and its recent trends are such that it is becoming harder and harder to have an impact beyond the pointless ticking of boxes, meeting of targets, mouthing of slogans, and the mounting of projects that are meant to look good at the time (i.e. in terms of fulfilling all of the previous important tasks of academia) while failing to have any lasting impact.

Add to this the observation that my thesis is within the Information Systems discipline which appears to me to be a dying discipline. A discipline suffering from the growing persuasiveness of information technology in turn reducing the importance and relevance of specialist IS researchers. A disease that seems to be infecting many IT specialist disciplines, but is especially difficulty for IS and its attempt to distinguish itself from other business disciplines and also the IT discipline. That said, being actively engaged with attempts to increase the relevance of the Information Systems/Technology disciplines would be an interesting and challenging project.

In the end, the value of my PhD comes down to a purely personal value. After taking so long to complete the thesis, I have indeed completed it. I’ve proven that I could finish it.

High school teaching

While, as described above, I can see the great impact a quality high school teacher can make, I can also see how difficult it might be. I wonder about whether or not I have the energy required to make the impact. Even though my experience is limited, I can already see the mismatch between the nature of schools, their curriculum and the needs of the students. NAPLAN and QCS testing is driving an increased focus on intellectual pursuits, somewhat like the point Sir Ken makes in the well known video below. Interestingly, this video was shown at the weekly staff meeting at the school I’m currently placed at.

Yes, there is some moves to broadening school with the offering of vocational education as part of high school. But the pressure of NAPLAN seems to be particularly limiting on mathematics. Especially within the constraints of existing curriculum and resources such as textbooks. The kids that are prepared to fit within the expectations of school are a joy to work with and get a lot out of this approach. But there are other kids who, for a variety of reasons, don’t fit and subsequently are ill-served by the system. Trying to help those students within the constraints of the system sounds like a recipe for frustration and burn out.

Seems like I’ve found the challenge for what’s next.

Where are all the innovative high school IT/CS classes?

This post is a request for pointers to the examples of really innovative/effective/different high school classes in Information Technology (IT/IPT) or Computer Science (CS). Even with just 10 days of prac teaching within a school setting, I can recognise the rationale and constraints that contribute to the use of the apparently typical curriculum. I would, however, like to break that mould and do something different. I’m assuming/hoping that I’m not the first and would like to benefit from the experience and ideas of others.

The rest of the post outlines the status quo I see, the rationale, and the examples I’ve found so far.

Status quo

So far, all of the IT courses I’ve seen follow the same path. Students are introduced to project management, the software development life cycle (SDLC), a bit of artificial intelligence, creating a web page/site, database design and development and programming. The tools are usually the Microsoft suite, especially Access (for database) and Visual Basic (for programming).

The programming/database tasks are usually “pretend” systems. e.g. a local restaurant wants a system to take customer orders. Students are taught procedural programming using things like nassi-schneiderman diagrams etc.


I have a significant disbelief in the benefit of the SDLC and similarly with the traditional psuedo-code/nassi-schneiderman approach to teaching programming. I also think that “pretend” systems development where the teacher plays the role of client, project manager, user and teacher is less than ideal for giving students a taste of the real challenge and excitement of IT. Much of this distate arises from teaching first year programming at University level a few years ago and seeing first hand how such approach destroy the joy that is software development.

I also have an assignment in which I’m meant to design a unit plan that demonstrates effective integration of ICTs into teaching. I’m thinking of doing this around a senior IT class.

What I’ve found so far

Based on previous experience, I am aware of a number of approaches/tools that aim to make programming more interesting. I’m pretty sure that some of these will have been applied to high school classes. The list includes:

  • Media computation – “a contextualized approach to introducing computing using a ubiquitous theme of manipulating media”.
  • Simple programming languages/environments such as Squeak, Scratch and Alice

For more specific high school examples, I thought I’d start with a look at the websites/conferences of a couple of Australian professional associations (e.g. QSITE). Here’s what I found.

Apparently, at least in 2009, Education Queensland allowed high school teachers to host PHP/MySQL on its servers. There’s also a bit more on different tools, but not much that I could see (with a limited search) on pedagogy or approach.

A bit of a broader search doesn’t reveal a great deal..I’m obviously not looking in the right places.

Looking for "learning objects" measurement, perimeter etc.

So next week sees me actively engage in a bit of teaching through leading small episodes that form part of my mentor teachers’ existing plans. In another week or two that will expand into complete lessons. One of the interesting parts of this activity has been the necessity to fit within the existing plans and approaches used by my mentor teachers. Approaches that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of and which place some constraints on what I can do.

On the plus side, the topics I’ve been allocated both initially and for the complete lessons have some connection. All focused around measurement, perimeter, area, volume…., though at two different grade levels (Year 8 and Year 10). For the year 8s I’ve been asked to find some computer-based activities that engage the students around these topics. I’m also hoping to find some similar work for the Year 10s. So, the aim of this post is to document my exploration for computer-based activities/learning objects for this content area.

To some extent, it’s turned into a battle between cathedral (formal learning object repositories) and the bazaar (the open Internet), and the bazaar seems to be winning.

The Learning Federation

The standard place to look for these resources for Australian educators seems to be The Learning Federation and its many guises. For example, the folk at my first school talk about using Scootle which seems to be the “interface” used by non-Government schools. As a student teacher at an Australian university my fellow students and I get access. Yes, access is restricted in someway. My access is via this site.

As expected there is a browse by subject area and ability to search. The advanced search feature is, at first glance, quite useful with the ability to limit to years of schooling (which says something about the school system, but still remains useful within that system).

What am I looking for?

The initial class will cover units of length (measuring and converting) and perimeter. The plan when introducing this topic is to rotate the students through three separate activity groupings. I’ll be taking the one using the computers, hence the search for LOs.

Okay, so I’ve found an object. A flash application that uses a “space” context to get students doing conversions. It has its limitations, but is a start. The question I have now, is how do I get access to this object in class? Can I download it or do I have to point to the external URL in class?.

Ahh, downloading can be done with a bit of playing around. And going by the terms and conditions this seems allowed, as long as the resulting file is only used within an educational institution that has a connection with The Learning Federation. Though this doesn’t work with all apps.

I’m also unsure that I can actually give the readers of this post a link so you can take a look. I have added it to my “learning paths”, even though I’m not sure what that actually means yet. Am assuming it makes it easier to find it again.

It is interesting to note that while there is a “rate & suggest” feature in this repository, all of the resources I’ve looked at so far don’t have any ratings or suggestions. The detail on the learning object does point to there being a script writer, a subject matter expert, an external validator and a technical implementer (external company) and a publisher (Education Services Australia) involved in the production of this. This is striking me as a heavy weight approach to producing learning objects.

Okay, there’s another one with area and perimeter. Another flash app, basically to compare and contrast area and perimeter of the same rectangle. This one has a PDF with some lesson ideas.

That’s it, I’m a little disappointed with that. The addition of flash apps offers some advantages, but not a lot and the pseudo-context of it all is something I find a touch sad. Especially given the amount of money that would have been spent on producing these objects.

A quick google on the same topic brings up this page which has a collection of “sheets” with ideas for teaching measurement. While not exactly the grade level, there’s a bit of creativity in these with much simpler technology and more of them..

Incorporating research

That same google search revealed this journal article, while not directly related, it does raise the question of how many of the above objects and teachers using those objects have been informed by, or even aware of, research into the teaching area. There seems a gulf there.

Google earth

Whilst in the midst of browsing the Learning Federation Alice Leung tweeted!/aliceleung/status/67033842342567937

When thinking about this topic area, Google earth was what sprang to mind first. I think a comparison between the closed world of the Learning Federation versus the open net and Google Earth might be interesting. Some criteria for comparison might be

  • Ease of finding resources.
  • Quality of resources.

A simple Google search “perimeter google earth” gets quite a few resources back. Including a blog post from a teacher that explains exactly the sort of thing I had in mind. Then there is the Google Earth Lessons site and I imagine there are many similar sites.

And of course a site I found previously.

Some misc “mind dump” ideas

  • Before starting Google earth, have the students estimate the following distances (as in all cases, encourage them to specify the appropriate unit of measurement and then convert it to some silly unit)
    • Distance from their locker to the classroom (reminding them that a typical human walks about 4.3km/h)
    • Where they will sleep tonight (some of the students are boarders).
    • The diameter of Lords Cricket Ground in London.
      The point here is to get the creative juices flowing for the next one.
    • Think of someplace you’ve always wanted to visit, think of a measurement associated with it (e.g. diameter of Lords Cricket Ground, the distance between your place and Rockhampton, how long is one of the sides of the Pentagon in Washington DC etc).
  • Have them find the school on Google Earth.
  • Get them to check their answers to the above measurements using Google earth.

Questions about using Google earth

  1. Is it installed on the school laptops?
  2. Is the school bandwidth sufficient to support ~18 Google earth connections + other data?
  3. How many of the students have used Google Earth before?
  4. How long will it take to get the students comfortable with using Google earth?
    I’m guessing minimal.
  5. What are the gotchas about Google Earth which my ad hoc usage hasn’t revealed, but which having a collection of students playing will almost certainly reveal?

Real life, mathematics, partial proportion and race horses

The following post brings together two recent events in my life into an attempt at a WCYDWT question for mathematics. It’s not a perfect fit for WCWYDT, but close.

What can you do with this?

The following is a photo of “Credit Muncher” just one of the race horses that has arisen out of my wife’s latest hobby, breeding race horses.

Portrait #1

She’s called “Credit Muncher” because I am somewhat worried about the potential for this hobby to consume vast amounts of money. I was, however, a little happy that we were breeding race horses, not racing them.

Racing a horse involves a continual outlay of money. First, there’s the expense of purchasing a yearling and then breaking it. At which stage you pause for a while before the horse is sent off to a trainer. This is when the real money starts being spent. Paying for someone to train the horse can cost upwards of $3,000 a month and the chances of winning are pretty slim. This has always seemed like a mug’s game to me. A good way to burn money. Thankfully, we were only breeding horses to sell to others.

That changed last night. My wife and mother-in-law went to the local thoroughbred sales. “Only to look”, said the wife. “I left my wallet at home by mistake”, was the cry on the day of the sales. So, I felt safe. Then last night, to my great surprise and chagrin, I find that both my wife and mother-in-law have purchased a yearling each. With the grand plan of breaking them, training them, and entering them in the Capricornia Sales race this time next year. The race has a total price purse of around $150,000 and all horses sold through a specific brand of sales is qualified (59 from this sale alone).

What questions spring to mind?


As of yet, I haven’t seen the new horse. We’ve already spent some money for it to go to a professional for breaking. A video or photo of the specific horse would be an improvement. Perhaps a bit more context of horse racing as well.

The story could do with some work. I do, however, think that the pain in my voice as I explain the story is likely to be the secret ingredient to motivate the students.

Working in some more detail about the prize money (1st, 2nd, 3rd etc) and other potential races might help.

Of course, the big potential problem is that the topic is horse racing and I hear gambling can be a bit of a no go topic in schools.

There’s also the problem that this problem doesn’t leave a lot of room for exploration, or at least I don’t see it.

My questions

The proper WCYDWT is to leave it to the students to come up with the questions from the story/prompt.

This idea comes about from the fact that I have a driving question. How much is this going to cost us? And an extension, how much is this going to cost me as the months roll on?

The idea for this post came from the fact that one of the first mathematics classes I was in during EPL (embedded professional learning i.e. prac teaching) covered partial proportion. And the students just didn’t see the application. This class was one of those that contributed to an earlier post about the relevance of mathematics.

Partial proportion

The basic formula for partial proportion is

y = kx + c

In this case, y is the total cost of the horse. The total cost is partially proportional to the monthly cost of training plus the initial cost of purchasing and breaking the horse. Using some round about figures, that gives

y = $3000*x + $5000

Given there is about 6 months of training to occur before the sales race

y = $3000*6 + $5000
y = $23,000


If we race the horse for 12 months

y = $3000 * 12 + $5000
y = $41,000

2 years

y = $3000 * 24 + $5000
y = $77,000

Sir, when are we going to use this?

My first two days of prac teaching last week included three mathematics classes. In two of the classes I heard students ask the teacher, “Sir, when are we going to use this? Why are we studying it?”. The other mathematics class was grade 12, obviously they benefited from their longer experience and were more pragmatic when they asked, “Will this be on the test?”. Since that time I’ve been wondering how I might answer this question when it is asked of me.

What follows are some initial ideas for how I might respond. Somewhat phrased as how I might use it with students. Thoughts? Suggestions?

The “icing on top”/”math as a badge of honour” response

Do you find mathematics difficult? How many other people do you know that find mathematics difficult? What is a potential employer going to think when they see a *insert top grade here* (VHA/A/7 etc) for mathematics on your report card? Showing an ability to engage with a subject that people find challenging will say something about your nature, something an employer may like.

The “it’s important to industry” response

Especially given recent noises made by the Australian Skills Council about the limited numeracy skills of potential employees for trades and professional jobs. Which includes statistics like “53% of working age Australians have difficulty with numeracy skills”. And looks at reports on the maths skills of starting bricklaying apprentices

  • 75% couldn’t do addition with decimals or subtraction requiring “borrowings”.
  • 80% couldn’t calculate the area of a rectangle.

The “turnaround” response: tell me what you will be doing

It’s a bit hard to explain what you might use this mathematics for when I don’t know what you might do in the future. What do you want to do when you leave school?

At this stage I’m thinking of an exercise where the students write their future career plans on a post-it and stick it to their forehead. And then for me to do it with what I was thinking at 15 and what has happened since. i.e. 3 changes before I left high school, a completely different outcome after Uni, and two more career changes since then.

Then show a bit of the Did You Know video that mentions various trends like numerous common jobs didn’t exist 6 years ago, and that a new worker today will have on average 14 different jobs.

Now, are you sure that is the only thing you’ll be doing?

So, while we may not know all that much about what you’re going to do, we do know that mathematics underpins and is needed by many new jobs. (e.g. the XKCD cartoon on purity).

The “how I have used it” response.

In the end, I can show you how I’ve used mathematics in my life. Which is what I’ll aim to do in most of my lessons. Failing that, I’ll aim to use interesting examples, exercises and activities around mathematics concepts that other people have used.

Supportive Learning Environments – Week 7

So, onto behaviour management and this week, Challenging Behaviours.

In a couple of weeks I have to put together a 2000 word report outlining a management plan for a beginning teacher. This is a start of that process. Am already feeling the tension between the well-meaning theory and the constraints of practice after only 2 days of EPL (embedded professional learning, i.e. prac teaching).

Challenging behaviours

Mmm, the textbook chapter while containing some good information seemed to be really poorly structured, at least in order to help novices get a sense for the topic. I keep coming across this in education related literature. Am wondering if this is due to a dissonance between me and the structures used by education folk, or whether some education folk are really bad at structure.

It seems Bill Rogers is a bit of a name in the area, at least in Commonwealth countries. It was interesting to come across a couple of YouTube videos – like the following taking a gentle (perhaps not so gentle) poke at his approaches.

Okay, onto a more academic introduction with Chapter 1 of

Jones, V.F., & Jones, L.S. (2001). Comprehensive classroom management: Creating communities of support and solving problems. (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Which starts witha collection of quotes expressing the importance of classroom management, not surprising given the topic of the book. This is probably the pick (god I hate secured PDF documents preventing copy and paste for sections)

The findings show that teachers who approach classroom management as a process of establishing and maintaining effective learning environments tend to be more successful than teachers who place more emphasis on their roles as authority figures or disciplinarians. — Good and Brophy (1994)

Wang, Haertel & Walberg (1993) – meta-analysis of factors influencing student learning identified classroom management as the most important factor…..a lot of US-based research showing discipline (or the lack thereof) a major concern for parents, teachers etc….now more citing that violence, intimidation etc does occur in schools….and now increase in students “talking back” and decrease in parents supporting teachers….teachers become victims of crimes (male teachers more likely)..1997 list of behaviours that happen most of the time/fairly often:

  • Schoolwork/homework assignments not completed – 71%
  • Behaviour the disrupts class – 58%.
  • Talking back/disobeying – SO% (not that’s not a type the poor OCR on the scan produces S, which is probably meant to either 2 or 5, based on surrounding figures, must be 5).
  • Truancy – 41%

Mmm, stating the obvious? Teachers find aggressive behaviour that interrupts classroom events as most stressful.

And here’s a unsurprising, but somewhat troubling quote (p. 7)

Simply stated, students’ learning is directly related to classroom order.

I’m somewhat troubled by the notion of “order” and its negative connotations in terms of removing creativity etc.

Some discussion of social factors leading to behaviour problems….but schools and teachers can make a difference….a quote that suggests that prevention of failure at school encompasses prevention of delinquency….research suggesting schools/teachers make a difference in skills…but also a downside from Wayson and Pinnell (1982, p. 117)

When discipline problems occur in school, they can more often be traced to dysfunctions in the interpersonal climate and organisational patterns of the school than to malfunctions in the individual. In short, misbehaving students are often reacting in a predictable and even sensibel way to the school as it affects them as as they have learned to perceive and react to it..better behaviour may be taught more easily by alterning patterns of roles and relationnships in the school organisation than by viewing and treating the student as a pathological problem.

And here’s mention of the authors’ 1981 model

in order to facilitate positive student behaviour, schools must attend to the issues of

  1. creating personally positive, supportive environments.
  2. meeting students’ need for meaningful academic tasks.
  3. and using discipline methods that incorporate the 3Rs
    • Recognition of wrongdoing
    • regret or emphatic understanding of why the act was inappropriate
    • reconciliation of relationship

..scary quote..”the majority of students in US schools have, at some time in their school history, experienced altreatment by an educator to the extent that the student has experienced symptoms of stress” (Lambert, 1990; Hyman & Perone, 1998).

More interesting research from Stanford (Phelan, Davidson & Cao, 1992, p. 696)

We find that, despite negative outside influences, students from all achievement levels and sociocultural backgrounds want to succeed and want to be in an environment in which it is possible to do so.

Onto social context, e.g. students with strong potential to have behaviour problems have low social skills. A class context can be seen as containing high risk/anxiety for these students…large group of peers, new activities etc.

Discussion of successful schools, a series of schools in Germany employed the following

  • Homegeneous home group.
  • 6 teachers had the same group of 85-90 students for 6 years and responsible for entire education.

Good results. Similar in work from Deborah Meier which had 2 hour interdisciplinary classess, had exhibitions of projects…more real world.

Ahh, I was wanting this – different conceptions of classroom management

  1. The counselling approach.
    Focus on what to do after the student misbehaved. Understanding problem, helping students understand etc. Focus on psychology, counselling.
  2. Behaviouristic methods.
    i.e. behaviour modification techniques e.g. ignore inappropriate behaviour while reinforcing appropriate behaviour, writing contracts, using time out procedures…..state clear expectations, quietly and consistently punish disruptive students, get group reinforcement for on-task behaviour.
  3. Teacher-effectiveness research.
    The current move to prevention. Focus on 3 sets of behaviours to influence student behaviour and learning
    1. skills in organising and managing classroom activities.
      ..reference to Kounin 1970 book (1100 citations on Google scholar) Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms which showed through video-tape analysis little difference between “good” and “bad” classroom managers after bad behaviour. But significant difference before…reinforced by other work, including later work that showed how much of the ground work was laid during the first few weeks of school, in both primary and secondary schools.
    2. skills in presenting instructional material.
      Mention made of Hunter’s ITIP program. Misc other mentions of good practice, including: cooperative work including Teams-Games-Tournaments approach, learning styles type approaches
    3. teacher-student relationships
      Two approaches: influence of the frequency/quality of teacher/student interactions; and, personal, affective dimension of relations. Communication of high expectations arises here.

And as you expect, once there are three separate approaches that seem to cover the topic, the solution is to combine them all….”An integration of approaches”. And evidence of these can be seen in the school I’m doing EPL at. Also evidence of evolution of each approach – e.g. the adoption of more cognitive behaviourism…self-management etc. The third approach has been criticised for being an exercise in control through routines, downplaying relationships.

And here are the five knowledge and skill areas for effective implementation of comprehensive class management

  1. Based on current class management research and theory, and on personal and psychological needs of students.
  2. Depends on positive teacher-student and peer relationships that create communities of support.
  3. Involves the use of instructional methods that facilitate optimal learning by responding to needs of individual students and the class.
  4. Using methods that involve students in developing and committing to behavioural standards that create a safe community and clear classroom organisation.
  5. Requires use of a range of counseling and behavioural methods that involve students in examining and correcting their inappropriate behaviour.

And later on some argument about instructivist versus constructivist approaches.

And onto teacher training…a number of studies have found that preservice teachers feel poorly prepared in classroom management (Goodlad, 1990; Wesley & Vocke, 1992)…..the diverse collection of class management approaches leads to most teacher training presenting theoretical approaches and providing tips. Suggested there are problems with this approach

  • Little research evidence for many of the models (e.g. assertive discipline, teacher-effectiveness training, Adlerian-based approaches) presented intexts.
    Emmer and Aussiker (1987) review suggests “only limited support for teacher training in models”.
  • Focus on isolated models emphasising responding to disruptive behaviour suggest misbehaviour is inevitable.

Comprehensive models, as above, seen as important. Also points out the importance of assistance (e.g. other teachers) when problems continue.

Pygmalion effect

And onto a part of this reading

Rogers, B. (Ed.) (2004). How to manage children’s challenging behaviour. London: Paul Chapman

by the same Bill Rogers the above video was lampooning just a bit.

Which currently seems to be a long-winded way of saying that staff expectations, often based on frustration, have a self-fulfilling tendency. Is my “expectation” of Rogers being influenced by the video above and my own cynical nature?

And another reading

Little, E. (2003). Kids behaving badly: Teacher strategies for classroom behaviour. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Nothing particularly ground breaking.

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