Friday, 17 May 2013

The Good, The Strange, The Fascinating...

We are all but finished with the heavily-emphasised [publicly] national tests for literacy and numeracy, with just a handful of 'catch ups' to be conducted later today for students that were absent earlier in the week.
It has all has gone relatively smoothly for our school, but there have been a few things that have stood out over the course of the week... 

The Good

Kids were calm, teachers were organised and staff helped eachother out, with front office staff helping to monitor which students would require 'catch up' tests due to being absent for one or more of the assessments, teachers helping eachother with the setting and resetting of classrooms, as well as staff being flexible with adjustments to normal timetables and routines.

The Strange

It is oft-quoted that greater variation exists from classroom to classroom within the same school, than it does when comparing schools with other schools... I think this notion of intra-school variation receives a turbo charge during NAPLAN Week!!
During the testing times this week, I would find myself walking through non-testing classrooms where furniture was arranged in a variety of ways to cater for a range of different learning preferences and purposes, where children and teachers were talking animatedly about what they were doing, working on a variety of tasks and generally enjoying themselves. I would then turn a corner and find myself in a classroom doing NAPLAN and find tables split up into individual islands, all facing the front of the room in linear rows, with students sitting and working by themselves in utter silence, with no assistance from peers, from their teachers, from any environmental print, technologies or other resources that the class next door was using furiously to help with their learning... Even more puzzling, these starkly-contrasting classrooms seemed to flourish back to life post-recess! Both the physical environment and the way students and teachers worked 'reverted' to active, hands-on, collaborative learning experiences, once the tests were completed each morning... 
Classroom One
Classroom Two

The Fascinating

The highlight of the week for me happened yesterday, when I was helping supervise [well I couldn't call it teaching... ] the numeracy test. As we neared the end of the test that sought to determine how much numeracy knowledge and skill students could demonstrate in 50 minutes [... ], I noticed one of our students making extensive notes all over a blank page that students had for working out. Curious at both the fast pace she was annotating at and the intensely focused look upon her face, I hovered over her shoulder and watched her work like this for probably three full minutes. 

This was the problem that she was attempting to solve:
Ten people share a prize of $8750.
They keep $850 each and give the rest to a charity. 
How much money in total do they give to the charity?
  • $7900
  • $790
  • $250
  • $25 
This was how she went about it [red annotations mine]:

  1. She wrote the beginning total to be shared in the centre of the page.
  2. She wrote the ten lots of 850 around the the central starting number, in a mind-map fashion.
  3. She subtracted 500 [all ten lots of 50] from the original starting number, leaving her with 8250.
  4. She individually subtracted ten lots of 800 [she'd already accounted for the extra 50s... ] from the remaining 8250, eventually calculating the answer of 250. 
Phew! Talk about laborious and painstaking!! 
However, despite her relatively inefficient method, she did get the correct answer!
More importantly for me though [and for her Maths teacher, who I caught up with afterwards to relay my observation], was that I had some useful information about this student's level of mathematical understanding and skill, which could then be used to teach the child a more efficient and effective strategy and, thus, improve the child's mathematical understanding and skill.
What made this information particularly useful, however, was that I had it almost immediately after the child's performance, putting us in a great position to address and improve the child's mathematical knowledge and skill in a very timely fashion.

This, of course, also highlighted one of the biggest and most obvious drawbacks of NAPLAN - yes, there is some good, useful information that teachers and schools receive from these tests, but we have to wait five months for it!! 
It would be impossible to predict what level of mathematical knowledge and skill the student that I observed will have in five months time... Unfortunately, however good the information we ultimately get is from these tests, its usefulness is quite significantly watered-down due to its sheer distance [time-wise] from the dates that the assessments were actually conducted... 

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Are you 'good at what you do'..?

We all intuitively know and appreciate the value of feeling good about our work and our own performance at work - self-confidence in performing a particular task generally contributes to the successful performance of that task, or, as a related saying expresses - 'success breeds success'...
In 'The Progress Principle', Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer delve into why it is so important for people to feel as though they are making progress in their work, as well as detailing the other contributing factors that are significant in determining the quality of people's Inner Work Life.

Amabile and Kramer argue that people's Inner Work Life - their sense of happiness and enjoyment with their work - can be measured through observation of three traits: their perceptions (thoughts) about their work environment, their emotions (feelings) about their work environment and their motivation (drive) to perform their work.
Whilst these elements enable us to gauge the relative happiness and enjoyment people are experiencing from their work, the interesting part is how we can contribute (or otherwise... ) to how positively people feel about their work.

The influences on Inner Work Life

'Nourishments' are triggers / actions that are related to the person (interpersonal). The four major nourishments identified are: respectencouragement, emotional support and affiliation.
The opposite of Nourishments are 'Toxins', examples of which could include not being treated respectfully by a colleague / leader, not having one's emotional needs acknowledged, or antagonistic behaviour from colleagues.

'Catalysts' are triggers / actions related to the work itself. The seven major catalysts identified are: the setting of clear goals, autonomy, provision of resources, giving adequate time, providing support with the work, focusing upon learning (from problems and successes) and facilitating a flow of ideas.
The opposite of Catalysts are 'Inhibitors', examples of which could include a lack of clarity about the purpose / direction of one's role, micromanagement, or not being given adequate resources to do the job.

'Progress' refers to the improvements and gains people are making in their work and leads into the sense of self-efficacy that is very closely related to a key plank of intrinsic motivation - one's sense of competence or mastery. ie. If we feel as though we are making progress towards mastery or improved competence in our work, then we will have a greater intrinsic sense of happiness and joy when doing this work.
A stand-out point about this Progress Principle is that people need to know (as it occurs, or as close as possible to it... ) when they are making progress in their work - the resultant positive effects on perceptions, emotions and motivation can build momentum to the point where they become self-perpetuating.
The opposite of Progress are 'Setbacks', examples of which could include failing to solve a problem, making errors / misjudgements, or running out of (time, money, resources, etc... ).

Lots of interesting ways that this could (should..?) impact upon how we measure the progress of teachers, how we provide performance feedback and the working conditions we seek to create in schools...

The book is well worth a read, but so is this talk by behavioural economist, Dan Ariely, where he expresses similar sentiments about the importance of making (and knowing that we are making) progress in our work: