Review: Teaching for Thinking Forum

“Five percent of the people think;
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”
-Attributed to Thomas A. Edison

The teaching profession, I have often heard, and am discovering for myself, is often about the networking you have done and the connections you have forged through a professional learning network (PLN), both online and offline.Or, to put it in the vernacular, it is all about who you know. The only reason I heard about the Teaching for Thinking Forum, that was hosted last night by St Leo’s Catholic College in Wahroonga, was that my sister-in-law is a teacher there and shared the flyer on her Facebook wall, which is yet another indicator for the need for teachers to have a professional presence online, but I digress.

This particular conference was aimed at showing how a culture of thinking can be and has been applied, and the beneficence of stretching our students to think in genuine ways, and the beneficence of us, as teachers, allowing time and appreciating our the output of our student’s thinking. To this end, the four speakers targeted different aspects of thinking and how they have been implemented in their schools.

The night was arranged with two speakers on either side of a fifteen minute networking and refreshment break. At the conclusion of the forum, there was a further opportunity for networking and conversation with many attendees going for dinner together at a nearby eatery.

The first speaker, and for me personally, the most engaging and motivating speaker was Dominic Hearne, the Head of Learning Enrichment and the Head of Religious Education at Waverley College. under the heading A model of / for Gifted and Talented Education (as used at Waverley College). Dominic outlined a BOSTES approved series of courses that that they developed and targeted towards those students who sat in the 80% – 95% range across key learning areas as a way of extending those students and providing opportunities for them to be challenged.

Dominic’s first point was a discussion of the models of extension that are traditionally utilised which tend to fall into one of two buckets. The first bucket that Dominic identified was where those students are withdrawn from the regular classroom context and provided with either one-to-one or small-group learning situations where they are extended and stretched in their particular learning area. It was pointed out that this can create further difficulties in itself, as the student is then required to catch-up on the learning they were not present for as a result of their extension opportunities. This can have the flow-on effect of creating additional stress for the student, which is of course not a desirable outcome.

The alternative that is often implemented is team-teaching, whereby a second teacher enters the classroom and provides one-to-one instruction that is aimed at extending the student. This however has its own pitfalls. In the early stages of such a practice, it can often be a source of much distraction to other students, as the new sounds, the discussion of the teacher and the student being extended, in provide an undercurrent of noise to the primary teacher delivering instruction to the majority of the class.

Dominic indicated that Waverley College wanted to combine the beneficial aspects of both practices, and developed two courses which they have been approved by BOSTES. ‘Learning Enrichment’ is now compulsory for Years Seven and Eight, and ‘Human Society and Applied Philosophy’ is now an elective for Years Nine and Ten.

Pure philosophy scares the [students]. Learning Enrichment dresses it up in respectability”
Dominic Hearne

Taking a step backwards, Dominic indicated that when they, as a school, identified that they wished to provide stretch learning opportunities for those students who were between the average and the top end of the academic bell-curve, the first thing that was done was the removal of the term Gifted and Talented as there is an extraordinary amount of baggage and expectation attached to that label. The use of Learning Enrichment as an alternative is not simply a case of ‘the same thing dressed differently’ but is an opportunity to widen the catchment net and enable those students who may not ordinarily be considered for a Gifted and Talented program, to be considered for this ‘Learning Enrichment’ opportunity.

The entry course, Learning Enrichment, delivers explicit teaching in critical thinking skills, and forward-maps the current learning to the future, explicitly, so that students understand why they are undertaking the project. The statement is put to them that they are the future leaders, and that in ten years they will have graduated, not only from high school, but from university. This creates, immediately, high expectations, by saying to the students that you will graduate from university, rather than you might graduate from university. In addition to this, all members of the school executive are expected to engage with the delivery of this course as a matter of fact.

“If students are not engaging with the [higher order thinking skills from] Bloom’s Taxonomy, that indicates a problem with the pedagogy, not with the student.”
-Dominic Hearne

The first unit, Dominic related to us, was an examination of epistemology, delivered as if it were a one hundred level undergraduate course, and done so without apology. Other units included were Problem Solving Skills, which was largely based on the concepts of the Future Problem Solving Program, in which students were expected to identify and solve a problem that was present within the school. This has result in presentations to the school business manager of how solar power can be utilised to save money, a presentation that included costings, and which has since acted upon with one building’s roof now being covered with solar panels.

Dominic gave us an example of how the Applied Philosophy course is delivered to Year Nine and Ten students, by asking us as an audience a question he asks those students: what are the life lessons we can learn from Bugs Bunny? If it has been a while since you have watched a Bugs Bunny cartoon, here is a clip from YouTube from the fiftieth anniversary of Bugs Bunny featuring highlights of fifty years of Bugs Bunny in three and a half minutes:

The question was hat are the life lessons we can learn from Bugs Bunny? Some of the responses that were offered up included that Bugs is always right, that animals can talk, that having a speech impediment is normal (think about how many of the core Looney Tunes characters have one), that cross dressing is normal (think about how many times you have seen Bugs or any of the others cross-dressing), that all skunks are French and are lechers and that death is not real. The point of the exercise is that the life lessons we learn from watching Bugs is that we create, in our minds, a universe which we accept without question. I remember watching Michael Jordan in the movie Space Jam, and not even blinking when Michael Jordan fell from the sky into the Looney Tunes world without getting hurt, because that is the world which my mind has constructed and accepted based upon years of watching cartoons.

This line of thinking then gets applied to our own world, and leads the way into questioning our assumptions and beliefs, and to becoming critical thinkers, and is an exercise I would like to undertake with some of my Stage Three students to get them thinking about critical thinking and questioning assumptions.

Other units throughout the program include a study of the Art of War and the Ethics of peace, an examination of St Augustine’s concept of a Just War leading into an examination of what happens when the war stops, and questioning why are some wars not really wars, why does the war on terror, need the ‘on terror’ designation and what that mean for the supposed war, and what happens when the Peacekeeping forces and humanitarian agencies enter after a war has concluded.

“Gifted and Talented is perjorative and we wanted to avoid that due to the loading and expectations already found. Learning Enrichment widens the net.”
Dominic Hearne

The last aspect of the course was the literary study. To be quite honest, this literary study sounds more difficult than what I was required to do in order to attain Honours Class I at university. Students are required to submit a three thousand word literary study, that is not about the story, but that is about the subtext of the story and the social, political and economic times in which the story was written, and in which the story is set. The student is then required to conduct a viva-voce, consisting of a fifteen minute presentation of their thesis and a fifteen minute defense thereof. This creates a mindset and a skillset in the students where they are required to thoroughly know and understand and be able to apply their knowledge and the concepts within their thesis, in order to adequately defend it from the questioning of their peers. It forces students to be able to organise their writing and their notes, and finally it forces them to be able to think on their feet. All of these are skills they will need to succeed in academia, both at the senior High School level and at the tertiary level, and are skills that will be useful in later life. It also creates a mindset for the students upon entering university that a fifteen-hundred word essay is nothing to sweat over, which puts them ahead of their peers.

I took a lot from Dominic’s presentation, and much of what he talked about is very similar to what I hope to achieve with my primary students during the research project. Dominic kindly provided a copy of the Human Society and Applied Philosophy course outline to the audience, which I will be reading with great interest. I spoke briefly with Dominic afterwards, and will be contacting him to arrange a suitable time to visit the college and observe a lesson, and speak further to determine ways in which I can adapt the pedagogy and the concepts of the course to be suitable for my Stage Two and Stage Three students.

If you are teaching explicit philosophy or applied philosophy, I would very much like to hear from you in regards to the pedagogical strategies you are using to allow the students to understand the complex concepts contained therein, and then apply them critically.

My next article, on Tuesday (delayed due to the long weekend here in NSW), will focus on the second speaker, Simon Brooks, the Head of Teaching and Learning at Masada College and his presentation entitled Cultures of Thinking – An Introduction to the Why and How.

Until then, thank you for reading, and my thanks again, to St Leos Catholic College for organising and hosting such a wonderfully inspiring and challenging conference, and to the speakers for giving up their time.

EDIT: Jump to Part Two of the Review: Teaching for Thinking Forum series.

Planning for Learning: The Teacher’s Program Part One

One of the core tasks of a teacher, one that must be completed before any teaching can, in fact, happen, is the completion of the Teaching Program. The contents of the Program often varies from school to school, and even from stage to stage and year to year in its requirements, but in its simplest form, and the form I prefer, it should simply be a plan for learning for that year or term. Whatever your school’s requirements for the Program, it should contain some basic elements and ideally have a simple structure, such as below, which is how mine is laid out:

  • Vision
    • Teaching Philosophy
    • Class Analysis
    • Explanation of special Program
  • Planning
    • Overview of Curriculum
    • Timetable
    • Scope and Sequence – Integrated Unit
    • Scope and Sequence – Numeracy
    • Scope and Sequence – Literacy
    • Daybook / Weekly Plan
  • Monitoring
    • Continuum Tracking (Literacy and Numeracy Continuum)
    • Assessment Records
    • Learning Plans
    • Class Groupings

Within most schools, some variation of the above, with more or less information/detail will be required, but this, I think is a fairly sensible and succinct program format and will be the basis for the next few posts, forming a mini-series on Planning for Learning.

The first thing to consider when setting out to create your program is what is its purpose? What are you trying to achieve, other than to conform to any required policies? It should of course be noted that a teacher’s Program is a legal document, and can be (and I’ve been advised, at various times has been) entered into Court as evidence in legal cases but it is not, nor should it be, why you write your Program.

There are a number of reasons for writing a Program.

  • It encourages you reflect on, and to articulate why you teach and how that is reflected in how you teach.
  • It demonstrates that you know your students and how they learn through the Class Analysis and Explanation of Class Programs.
  • It ensures that you have thought about, planned, and programmed for learning at an overview level (the timeframe may vary from one to three years, personally I’ve come to like a two year overview), at the term level, at the weekly level, and then at the session or daily level for each key learning area.
  • It encourages you to be specific about how you will monitor, track, and record learning outcomes for each student across the weeks, terms and the year to ensure that you can provide timely feedback to students and their parents both formally and informally.
  • It encourages you to be specific about how you will cater for individual students learning needs through Individual Learning Plans, Behaviour Management strategies and how and why different class groupings will be utilised.

Programs can be daunting. I have seen Programs that are lever-arch folders, full to the brim, with every lesson, every resource or idea seen, permission slips, multiple scope and sequences, out of date, useless and irrelevant information, and have been told that it is a “working folder.” My issue is that if it is a working folder, it should be up to date, and concise, and should reflect why you are writing it.

My view of a Program is a single folder for a year, broken into four terms with dividers. Each of the three sections (Vision, Planning, and Monitoring) should be present within each divider, reflective of that term. If you want to keep a resource folder, by all means do so (and I do), but don’t keep it in your Program folder, or your Program becomes a massive paperweight that is difficult to navigate and use. Your Program folder should contain your program, and your resource folder should contain your resources.

Of course, once you know why you are writing your Teaching Program, it can be rather daunting to sit down to a blank screen for the first time as the cursor winks mockingly at you on an empty page. I personally keep each specific document within my program as a separate word document to make editing and updating quicker and easier. The first, and arguably the most important section, particularly for a beginning teacher, is the Vision segment.

Why?

The first component within your vision is the most important aspect of the entire Program: your Teaching Philosophy. This is a very personal document, as it should be an explicit accounting of why you are a teacher. It doesn’t matter necessarily what the reason is, as I said, it is a personal document in as far as why you teach is a personal reason, but you need to be honest with yourself about why you turn up every day. I’ve written previously about why I teach, and when I first wrote it out, I took it to my Supervisor and said to him, “this is why I teach, but it doesn’t sound ‘right.’”

I was used, at that point, to thinking in an academic, or more specifically, university assignment frame of mind, which tends to frown upon personal opinion and ideas. It does need to be edited to sound professional after you have made your first draft, it is not about having the right reason for teaching, is about having your reason for teaching. That said, you can certainly make a personal vision of why you teach sound academic, and being able to speak and write in fluent Academic-ese is a great skill to have, particularly if you are of the progressive research-based and practice-driven frame of mind, but you still need to be honest about it.

You will likely take more than one attempt to distil why you teach down to an honest reason. My first draft Teaching Philosophy contained clichés and platitudes such as wanting to make a difference for the future, wanting to give back to society, loving working with children, and enjoying teaching children. These are all reasons why I have chosen to pursue a career of pedagogical practice, however, in and of themselves, they are not the reason why I turn up every day with a smile on my face. Accordingly, they don’t appear in my Teaching Philosophy.

You may be stuck wondering now how to write your Philosophy. You may very well never have seen one (as a fun and interesting exercise, ask your colleagues when the last time they updated their Teaching Philosophy was, or, do they have a formalised Teaching Philosophy). There are many different formats that can be used, but none of those that I have seen are conducive to honest articulations of why you teach.

My Philosophy is structured around three simple premises, and indeed, these are the specific headings that I use to organise my Philosophy:

  • Why do I teach?
  • How do I teach?
    • Overview of how the why drives the how
    • Behaviour Management Strategies
    • Classroom Ecology (this encompasses both the physical and emotional/academic/mental)
    • Planning and Assessment Methodology
  • What do I teach?

This format, if done honestly and rigorously, will naturally cover the majority of the AITSL standards that we are now required to conform to, and will do so in an authentic and easy to read manner.

Once you have articulated your Teaching Philosophy, it is important that it remains a living document, and changes as you and your circumstances change. Why I teach at the moment, married with no children, is different to some of my colleagues who may be single with or without children, married with multiple kids, on the verge of retirement, or in the prime of their practice, and how I teach and how they teach will therefore be different. When it comes time for my wife and I to start a family, the why I teach, I would expect, will change, and how I teach may change accordingly. Your Teaching Philosophy should therefore not be written and filed, never to be looked at again. It should be the subject of reflection on a yearly basis or as circumstances make appropriate. It may not change each year, but it forces you to re-examine and stay engaged with your personal vision for the role and purpose of education and how and why you engage with it.

The class analysis is the second component to the Vision segment of the Program, and is one that does need to be completed yearly, and also needs to be updated on a term by term basis. The class analysis should contain a basic overview of the class; the gender split, the year split, the gender per year split (if a composite class), any general diagnoses and any other general information relevant to your class as a whole, and then delve into more specific information about your individual students.

This section should reflect your understanding of your students and how they learn and may contain information such as their preference for learning styles (Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences), ESL information, specific topics or areas of interest that can be leveraged to increase engagement, or areas of particular disinterest. It should be an analysis of your students and thus will change from term to term, as your knowledge of them grows. At the beginning of term one, you may be working from what you know of them from conversations with their previous teachers, but your knowledge will rapidly grow, and I this should be updated fairly early within the year, and then each term.

The Explanation of Special Programs is an area that you write nothing, little, or a lot about. This section has to do with programs that are specific to your class and not the whole school. For example, my classroom at the moment is running a 1:1 BYOD trial, which is not present in any other class in the school, and accordingly, this program is detailed in my ESP. Some examples include BYOD programs, thematic classrooms (i.e. a classroom is driven by a theme such as performing arts, sports, science and technology around which literacy and numeracy are based), specific literacy or numeracy programs that are in place such as L3, Focus on Reading, Mathletics or anything else that is appropriate. If you have a Special Program in your class, you will know what it is.

That is a brief overview of the first segment of the Teacher’s Program, looking at the Teaching Philosophy, the Class Analysis and the Explanation of Special Programs. The next post will focus on the Planning segment of the Teacher’s Program, and will look at how I program, why I think it works and how to cover the incredible amount of content we are required to, succinctly.

EDIT: The next article in this series is available here.

Why do you teach?

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
– Attributed to William Arthur Ward

First of all, I apologise for being tardy with getting this blog entry up far, far later than I said I would. I spent the second week of the school holidays at a football (soccer) tournament as a referee coach, mentoring and coaching young referees, and as much fun as it was, I came home on the Saturday before Term started, and was asleep by 8.30 that night, and didn’t wake until 10 the next morning. Then it was headlong into my Internship in a Year 5/6 class. This coming week is my third week, and I absolutely love it so far. I’ve got an excellent CT (classroom teacher), who is incredibly supportive and challenges me to justify what I want to do in a lesson, not to discourage me, but to help me focus on what the specific purpose of that lesson is.

Moving along.

As you read this post, I’d like you to consider why it is you teach. What makes you get up every morning, get to school at 7 am for a 9 am start, and leave the grounds at 5 pm, when the students all left at 3 pm? For what reason do you do this?

I promised last time that I would post my teaching philosophy, which was partly about making myself accountable for actually writing it, and partly about opening up dialogue on this topic. We were told that we had to write a teaching philosophy for our internship portfolio for university, and that it should reflect why we teach and what we believe about teaching, but beyond that, there was no guidance. I have never seen any practicing teacher’s philosophy, and so had no benchmark or starting point and so asked my CT about his. This led to a long conversation about the purpose of a teaching philosophy how to write it, how to structure it, and what it should be about.

From that conversation came the realisation that it is an incredibly personal document, that should be revisited regularly (my CT said he goes back to his at the beginning of each year) as our lives, and therefore our reasons for teaching, change regularly.  I have adopted the same structure for my teaching philosophy as that used by my CT as it makes sense, and helps to make it a real document to me, as opposed to a useless of piece of academia, submitted for an assignment and then consigned to the dustbin.

It is based on three questions, which form the document structure. The first section is headed “Why” and is an answer to the question “why do I teach?” The second is informed by the first, and is headed “How” and outlines how I will teach. The third section, “What” is what I will teach, and is mandated by the syllabus documents we are all required to work within.

I thought I knew why I teach. However, when I sat down to write my philosophy, I found myself writing a series of clichés such as “I like working with children, all children should have the opportunity to succeed, I want to make a difference in the world” etc. Although I do agree with those statements, they are not what compels me to teach, and makes me excited to be going down this career path and they felt hollow when I put them on paper. I knew inside myself what the real reason for my desire to teach was, but have always felt that it was not right/rigorous/academic enough, and so have always shied away from using it on those occasions when the question of why I want to teach comes up.

When I made that comment to my CT, he nodded and said that that is the reason why it’s a personal teaching philosophy, and not an academic assignment. It has to be something that we as teachers can look at on those days when we want to headbutt a brick wall and that will make us smile and remember why we do this. It should be personal to each of us, and so will be different for each of us and it will then influence how we teach. S/He who teaches for money teaches differently than s/he who teaches for a desire to create change in the world.

This, then, is my first draft of part one of my teaching philosophy. I am still working on translating the why into the how in such a way that it makes sense on paper.

Why Do I Teach?

I teach for two reasons. I had two amazing male teachers in my own primary education. Both were strong men whom I looked up to, as both had a strong presence, as they were encouraging of my strengths and chiding of my weaknesses, pushing me to work on them. They were men who were able to work with all of my peers, challenging each of us at our own academic level.

My three younger siblings on the other hand, across their combined eighteen years of primary education, had a total of one year with a male teacher, and the difference that that year of a strong male influence every day at school made on my sister and her self-confidence in dealing with her brothers and in talking to other male, non-immediate family members, was tremendous.

My youngest brother needed a strong male role-model as a steadying influence and to provide guidance on interpersonal skills in the day-to-day situations at school that a father does not have access to. I teach because I want to be the positive male role model for those students who otherwise may not have one.

The second reason that I teach is due to a love of learning and discovery, a love that was instilled by my family, but nurtured by my primary school teachers. It is that love of learning, the desire to know more about areas of interest, and the excitement of the moment when the dots are joined between prior knowledge and new understanding that provides the second reason why I teach.

I would love to hear from other teachers as to how you set out your teaching philosophy, how you utilise it, and even just why it is you get out of bed to teach every morning. This is my first draft, and I’m still working on cleaning it up to make it more academic sounding, but at the same time, if it’s a personal document, do I need to?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.