Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: October 2011

What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience

I’m currently engaging in a bit of light reading as an escape from the constraints of regular teaching. The title of this post comes from Terry Pratchet and Feet of Clay (p 206)

What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience.

The quote arises from the Sir Samuel Vimes character considering the type of detective who can say

in a lordly voice to his companion, “Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fallen on hard times”

The point being that the same small collection of observations could be used to justify something completely different. Pratchet’s example is

to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he’d been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen (These terms are often synonymous) and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement

Reading this, I immediately thought of the arrogance of the researcher, or even worse, the arrogance of the person with the solution to some complex problem (e.g. a manager or leader), such as education. Having taught 7 straight lessons to a Year 10 core mathematics class the phrase – “the chaotic variety of the human experience” – resonates quite strongly. There are no universal solutions/responses to this variety.

Common lesson plans for all

Connected with this was the examination of the “Curriculum to Classroom” (C2C) unit and lesson plans for mathematics being promulgated within Queensland schools. In short, the background is

  • Queensland schools are adopting the new Australian National Curriculum in English, Mathematics, and Science netx year.
  • The C2C project is providing unit and lessons plans for that National Curriculum.
  • Some and perhaps many Queensland teachers will be expected to follow those unit and lesson plans.

There are aspects of this that don’t surprise me, at least not in the current societal context. I am surprised at the high level of prescription within the provided plans. The lesson plans are complete and detailed. With this resource, there is no longer any need for lesson planning for teachers. They can simply follow the provided lesson, which includes a range of resources, specific examples of questions to ask and worked solutions for many problems. The unit plans even come with assessment items.

This seems to take away much of the freedom (or need to use that freedom) to develop learning experiences that match the needs of a specific group of students. At least that’s the way it seems coal-face teachers are interpreting. One of the issues of the Courier Mail newspaper from last week had a letter to the editor from an English teacher complaining about the constraints this would place on practice. On the other hand, many of the teachers I’ve observed hearing about this have essentially said “Yippee” as it means less work for them.

But it also appears to be not the motive of the folk developing these plans. In this newsletter which describes these plans as

a starting point, and teachers can adapt them meet (sic) the needs of their own class and students

Apparently this aim fits with a goal of Education Queensland one vision, one curriculum, one platform, different ways.

Based on my ad hoc and limited observations, it appears more likely that there may not be a lot of difference (at least initially) in those different ways. In fact, on reflection, this seems to be unfolding in ways similar to the question about whether minimum standards become maximum standards. It appears likely that this approach will suffer the problem identified by Cavallo (2004)

grafting a series of discrete treatments into a complex system and assuming they will be applied faithfully and uniformly and will fit into the existing local cultures.

I wonder if anyone is undertaking any research around how this all unfolds within Queensland schools next year?


Cavallo, D. (2004). “Models of growth – Towards fundamental change in learning environments.” BT Technology Journal 22(4): 96-112.

"Clickers", success, and why do I feel dirty?

Apart from starting the hassle map exercise my last lesson in 10 Mathematics also included my first use of the Active Expression “student learner learner response system”. While a bit disorganised, I can see some benefits. But I still feel a bit dirty.

What are they?

The following photo gives you an idea of what the he ActivExpression “clickers” look like. Basically an oversized calculator with a mobile phone-like keyboard, some extra buttons, and a small LCD screen. It goes with a little dongle that plugs into the back of a (usually teacher) computer to receive the student responses and that works with the Promethean Interactive WhiteBoard (IWB) software.



Mainly because they are there. The classroom I teach in has an IWB and a computer and there are 30-odd of these devices laying around not being used. But also because they might provide some additional insight into how the students are progressing. Then there is the observation that being on my internship with a mentor teacher hanging around is probably the best chance I have to do some experimentation, at least experimentation that sticks within the “grammar of school”.

The final reason was that this was the last lesson on a Friday afternoon for these students. A lesson that typically doesn’t find them focusing much on the mathematics. Playing with some toys might generate some interest.


The plan was to spent 15/20 minutes getting the students using the devices to answer a couple of stand alone questions (quick polls) and then do a self-paced test.

There was probably a good 10 minutes spent getting the devices set up and ready. And about the same spent doing the questions.

Most of the students seemed to handle the devices okay. Their use generated some engagement/interest out of some students who are generally more disengaged. No real learning about mathematics happened, but they became familiar with the devices so the next time might be a bit easier.


I’m a bit conflicted about the experience.

On the positive side it engaged the students and could provide some useful insights into just how well the students are “getting” the mathematics I’m trying to teach them.

Of course, the very words I’m using in that paragraph reveal some of the drawbacks. The use on Friday was very traditional. It assumes it’s my job to teach, there’s to learn and the clickers are there to check how well the transaction occurred. I’m using tech to improve the existing processes. Evolution, not revolution.

That’s the bit I feel dirty about.

I like the quote from Martin Davis used by Lasry (2008) when comparing clickers and flash cards

As men get older, the toys get more expensive.

But given that the expense has already been spent, I may as well use it. And this is but a stepping stone.

What’s next?

I’ve been aware of Mazur’s work on peer instruction for awhile as one approach to effectively using clickers, without really knowing the details. A possible way forward would be to modify the class approach to use peer instruction.

Only now do I realise that one of the assumptions about peer instruction is that it is associated with the “flipped” classroom. i.e. students are expected to do some pre-reading. I can probably modify this a bit, though I should read some more about peer instruction.

I am interested by the possibility of whether or not peer instruction would address some of the issues students have with the boring nature of the class (as revealed in the hassle map results). I wonder if regularly pausing to talk with a peer would be counted as a “fun activity”.

Associated with this, I also wonder how engaging the clickers would be for the students if all we did for them was answer the standard mathematics questions. Might the novelty wear off?

In the shorter-term, I need to analyse some of the results from Friday’s experience. The Promethean software records student responses. Some of the value of the clickers is the ability to become aware of student progress.


Lasry, N. (2008). Clickers or Flashcards: Is There Really a Difference? The Physics Teacher, 46(4), 242. doi:10.1119/1.2895678

Results of the Year 10 math hassle map

A little while ago I blogged about the idea of having the students in the Year 10 mathematics class I’m teaching generate a “hassle map”. Essentially a list of the things that annoy them about the class with the aim of doing something about it. This week I implemented the idea. The following describes the week, talks about the responses from the students, and lays out some initial thoughts about what will happen next.

More than happy to hear suggestions from people.

Introducing the idea

This last week was the first of 6 weeks in which I’m meant to be doing all the teaching for this class (it’s part of an internship and the last requirement for my Graduate Diploma in Learning and Teaching). I’d planned to do the hassle map process this week as I thought we’d be able to cover the necessary material with some time to spare.

So in the first lesson I mentioned the activity to the students, to make them aware it was coming. Their immediate reaction was “we’re changing the seating plan”. At least that was the reaction from a fairly vocal minority who actively dislike the seating plan put in place by my mentor teacher. Every lesson after that the question was, “Are we changing the seating plan today?”. By the third lesson we were just about there. I’d planned that we might get to it, if we completed the set tasks (yes I am very much aware of the problems with this whole notion that a group of almost thirty 15 year olds is doing mathematics all at the same pace and in an order set by me…but that’s the current context) and I told them so. The unexpected consequence of this was that one of the least engaged students – who was also a student keen on changing the seating plan – actively engaged in the lesson. Answering questions, demonstrating understanding. Sadly we ran out of time, but we’re ready to go first thing in the next lesson.

The rules

I did set some rules for the students’ hassles. They were

  • Must be related to this class.
  • Must abide by school rules.
  • Must complete curriculum in set time.
    I personally had some reservations about this one, but it is a requirement.
  • Must support learning for all.
  • Must be doable.

At this stage the students we’re given 3 post-its each and asked to write down their hassles.

The response

With 27 students in the class, there were 38 returned hassles. I’ve grouped these into categories based on common themes. Two of the categories account for 63% of the responses.

The biggest category is the “X should sit by themselves” which includes 14 hassles that suggest that a certain, single student should be sat by themselves because the student disrupts.

The next biggest is the “No seating plan” category with 10 hassles. Essentially wanting the seating plan done away with and students being allowed to sit where they want.

The next biggest category with 4 hassles is the “Not to get in trouble for things we didn’t do” category.

THere are then three categories with 2 hassles each, they are:

  1. A call for more “fun activities” in class.
  2. A call to use laptops more often.
    There’s a class set of laptops in the room the class takes place in.
  3. And finally, the “no TV (flatscreen)” category.
    I need clarification on this one as I’m uncertain. It appears that they would prefer to do without the interactive white board.

There are then four categories with 1 hassle each. Three of these are environmental: “change the chair because it sucks”, “No aircons”, and “Dim the lights”. The last is a suggestion to have revision notes of important concepts covered in class.


By examining the handwriting, it appears that some of the students worked out very quickly that they could write the same hassle down three times, rather than three different hassles.

The identification of a specific student reveals an interesting dynamic in the classroom. One that is normally not visible due to the lack of student feedback generated by the normal classroom methods.

Underlying both of the top categories is the desire to change the seating plan to avoid disruptions to the class and improve learning for all. At least that is what stated in the hassles.

Possible responses

Given the strong desire to improve the seating plan, I’m leaning towards saying we’ll do that. Mainly because all of the submissions say that doing so will increase learning and decrease disruptions. However, I think the plan will be to connect the changes in the seating plan to disruptions and learning. i.e. if certain groups want to sit together that is fine, but if this increases disruption to the class or decreases their learning, then we revert.

The challenge will be to come up with a seating plan that suits everyone. I should put this back onto the students, and if I had the energy and time, should link this to mathematics somehow. The trouble is that time is getting away from me. Some more thoughts here are needed.


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