Project Based Learning – giving it a go in an English Classroom

I’ve been reading about Project Based Learning for some time now, and struggled trying to find a way to integrate this kind of pedagogy into my regular classroom practice. I think I do a fairly good job of challenging my students and getting them to think beyond the obvious, but my English classes do tend to follow what would be perceived as traditional structure.

This last term we studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. We did make a decision early on to plan the unit using the principles of Understanding by Design, and this meant we had a driving question to help us focus. Our question was, ‘What drives the choices we make?’  It took us some time to get to this question in one of our planning sessions, but I’m so glad we went to the effort of doing this. I referred to this constantly throughout our study and it really helped the students to think carefully about the motivations of  the characters and the circumstances surrounding the tragic outcome of the play. I’m not ashamed of saying that my instruction involved some fairly explicit teaching in that we examined the text thoroughly and focused on key scenes. Our classroom was full of spirited discussion and some moments where we employed drama techniques, but our intent was to understand the complexities of the play in order to respond effectively in a text response essay at the completion of our study. That my students did, and quite impressively I might add.

For the last two weeks of term, we’d decided that we would try and have them do something creative in response to Romeo and Juliet, and have them work on a multimodal task as per the requirements of Australian Curriculum. Specifically, we were looking at the following content descriptions and achievement standard:


Interacting with others:

Identify and explore the purposes and effects of different text structures and language features of spoken texts, and use this knowledge to create purposeful texts that inform, persuade and engage (ACELY1750)

Elaborations: ·  applying knowledge of spoken, visual, auditory, technical and multimodal resources (for example sound and silence, camera shot types, lighting and colour) in conjunction with verbal resources for varying purposes and contexts

  • selecting subject matter and language to position readers to accept representations of people, events, ideas and information

Plan, rehearse and deliver presentations, selecting and sequencing appropriate content and multimodal elements to influence a course of action (ACELY1751)

Elaborations: using assumptions about listeners, viewers and readers to try to position them to accept a particular point of view

Create texts:

Use a range of software, including word processing programs, confidently, flexibly and imaginatively to create, edit and publish texts, considering the identified purpose and the characteristics of the user (ACELY1776)

Elaborations: designing a webpage that combines navigation, text, sound and moving and still images for a specific audience

Create sustained texts, including texts that combine specific digital or media content, for imaginative, informative, or persuasive purposes that reflect upon challenging and complex issues (ACELY1756)

Elaborations: creating spoken, written and multimodal texts that compel readers to empathise with the ideas and emotions expressed or implied.

Achievement standard: Students create a wide range of texts to articulate complex ideas. They make presentations and contribute actively to class and group discussions, building on others’ ideas, solving problems, justifying opinions and developing and expanding arguments.

Now, our usual course of action would have been to develop a task and have the kids make some choices about what presentation method they would use to explore it, and our focus in terms of assessment would have been on the outcome. I’m sure we’ve all been there. You have your students working in groups, but invariably there is one group member who either chooses to do the bulk of the work because they want to achieve a good result and can’t bear to have the rest of the group let them down, or someone gets left to carry the can for members who slack off. In these kinds of instances I have marked group members differently, but it is sometimes difficult to ascertain who has done what, particularly if they’re working in friendship groups and they don’t want to fracture the relationship so they cover for the group members who aren’t really pulling their weight.

My reading in relation to Project Based Learning told me there was another way, so I did what comes naturally to me and I suggested to the other team members that we try something different with this and give PBL a go. For those of you with no concept of PBL, here’s some information from the Buck Institute site that outlines features of a PBL unit:

A “Main Course” project:

  • is intended to teach significant content.
  • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication.
  • requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new.
  • is organized around an open-ended Driving Question.
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills.
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice.
  • includes processes for revision and reflection.
  • involves a public audience.

These points are elaborated here – I suggest you take a look.

For the other teachers I was working with this was their first exposure to the ideas surrounding PBL, so we spent one of our planning sessions with me sending them links to the writings of Bianca Hewes, an English teacher in Sydney who uses PBL extensively in her classroom, and to the Buck Institute site, where once you’ve registered (it’s free), you gain access to a range of curriculum resources to help guide you through the process. After we’d looked at the collaboration and presentation rubrics, we could see that this was a far better approach than the usual multimodal task. The reality for us was that this was going to be an assessment task, only this time what we’d be doing is assessing collaborative skills and the process that leads to the outcome; a far better way of measuring student input and one that ensured we could assess students based on their contribution.

A good PBL task has a ‘hook’ lesson to get the kids motivated. We knew we needed to convince our students that what they were going to be doing was of benefit to them, so we focused on a report called ‘Future Work Skills – 2020‘, that was published at the end of of 2011 by the Institute for the Future for the University of Phoenix Research Institute. I suggest you take a read of the report. The following visual (perhaps a little difficult to read here) is a representation of the ideas contained in the report.

I think it was really useful using this with our students. It certainly got them thinking and provoked some spirited discussion. It’s also something I intend to revisit with them at the end of this task so we can evaluate what key skills we’ve addressed throughout the course of our PBL task.

Our driving question came into good use once again, and became the basis for the task. Here’s what we used with our students to help them get a handle on what they were going to be doing:

We have just finished our study of William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. While we were investigating the play, we used the following driving question to frame some of our discussion:

What drives the choices we make?

Working in groups, you are going to be creating some form of multimodal response to this driving question. You can use some of the ideas presented from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to frame your project, or you can take your project in a direction decided upon by members of your group.

Because we are studying English, we would like to see you incorporating writing, speaking and visual components to your task. Think about the following essential questions to help you develop a creative artifact:

‘A choice made today, will affect our lives tomorrow.’

‘What are the consequences of choosing wisely, or unwisely?’

 To help get you and your group started, use this thinking routine to start generating some ideas:

  1. What do you think you know about this topic?
  2. What questions or puzzles do you have?
  3. How can you explore this topic?

Think about the skill set of the members of your group. How can the differing skills members of your group have help you develop an artifact from your investigation?

Our next three weeks of classes will be structured like this:

Week 1 – Investigation

Week 2 – Process

Week 3 – Presentation

We will be looking very closely at developing in you what are considered 21st century skills:

critical & creative thinking, collaboration, self monitoring and self direction, leadership and project management skills.

I was concerned about grouping the students. Should we let them choose, or choose for them. After asking my Twitter network, it became clear that making the decision about groupings ourselves was going to be the way to go. This way, they’d be assured of having to work collaboratively with people outside of the normal social groupings they gravitate to. I decided to make groups of three, and this has worked very well.

Giving the students the task as outlined above was an interesting exercise. They were already sitting in their groups and watching their approaches to what they’d been presented with was eye opening. Some groups settled down to proactive discussion immediately, while others floundered with the lack of parameters surrounding the task. This is where you as a teacher really need to be on your game. This was definitely not a time to be watching events unfold. It was a time to be circulating, checking in, watching for cues that some weren’t comfortable. The thinking routine helped some groups focus, but other groups had students who were expressing agitation at the open nature of the task. These students in particular needed reassurance and reminding that this was something they needed to be shaping -they needed to be thinking about the course they could take and engaging in discourse to help ideas form.

The formation of ideas for each group’s PBL task extended into a second lesson the following day. One of my students entered the room visibly unhappy about the task. She was one of the most capable students, but was finding this a real struggle. I was concerned, but 10 minutes into the lesson I looked over to that group and was amazed to see smiles and animated discussion taking place. I moved over and asked what had transpired to change the mood. “We’ve got an idea!”, was the reply, and they were excitedly tossing around what they might do to make their idea a reality. To focus this session, I used the ‘Compass Points’ thinking routine  from the Visible Thinking site for examining propositions.

  1. E = Excited
    What excites you about this idea or proposition? What’s the upside?
  2. W = Worrisome 
    What do you find worrisome about this idea or proposition? What’s the downside?
  3. N = Need to Know
    What else do you need to know or find out about this idea or proposition? What additional information would help you to evaluate things?
  4. S = Stance or Suggestion for Moving Forward
    What is your current stance or opinion on the idea or proposition? How might you move forward in your evaluation of this idea or proposition?

I was doing a lot of circulating at this stage and monitoring progress. Two groups were working well, but were struggling to come up with a concrete idea. I asked if it would help if they heard from other groups about what their ideas were, and they were really interested in doing this. So a sharing session ensued and this helped these groups get a handle on the direction others were taking and seeded ideas for their own approach. One group needed more direction, and I sat down with them and talked through what the strengths of the participants were. This helped them narrow an idea down to something that drew from these skill sets.

What was reassuring during these sessions was hearing some students express excitement about what they doing. One group in particular who formulated their idea really early, were just buzzing with the possibilities of what they would do and what the outcomes might be. One of these students was someone who had seemed tuned out during our exploration of Romeo and Juliet, and yet here she was now, animated and driving discussion. One of the most powerful things this experience has shown me is the way some students power the group, and quite often, they’ve been students who have not necessarily been the shining lights in other classroom tasks. I’m getting insights into students that I wouldn’t have gleaned unless we were doing a task designed this way.

Now, where’s the technology in all this you may ask? It’s sitting right alongside and working as an enabler and facilitator. We’re using Edmodo as our virtual collaborative sharing space. All the students have joined the group I’ve created using the group code you get when you create one, and I’ve created small groups within this group to help them discuss ideas outside of class time. When you’re the teacher, you automatically become a member of each group when they’re formed and the space is visible only to members of that group.  I’ve made the students aware that I’ll be watching these group spaces carefully as it’s another sign of their collaborative efforts and will help with the assessment end of things. Again, it’s been interesting seeing who is sharing in these spaces and how the groups are using them for communication. One group is using a Google Doc for collaborative purposes and has it linked to their group. Their honesty is apparent in their reflections – for the most part, they’re certainly not afraid of acknowledging both their strengths and weaknesses.

As a teacher, I’ve been working hard. This is no ‘sit back and let it all unfold before your eyes’ kind of activity. This is constant checking, questioning, supporting, encouraging, monitoring kind of work. My energy levels need to be high so that I can keep their energy levels high. For the last two weeks of term as we worked on the investigation and process phase, I was chasing links in my Twitter stream and finding ways to connect them to our driving question, and was pouring over YouTube videos looking for examples of collaboration to help get across to them the importance of a group working as a team. Here’s one we looked at that really got us talking.

What’s been incredibly encouraging is the spoken feedback I’m getting from students. I’ve heard some say they are enjoying the challenge of thinking, of directing their own learning, of working with people they don’t normally mix with. One student stayed back after class to tell me how much she was enjoying learning this way and that she’d never thought it would be possible to work like this in an English classroom. Many are excited about their ideas and are genuinely interested in seeing them come to fruition and sharing their artifact with others. Most of them have structured manageable tasks, but some have been ambitious. I’ve made a point of saying to them repeatedly that it’s the collaborative work and process that is important here, and if what they come up with falls short of their plans due to time restraints, it’s still possible to do very well on this task if they have done what is expected from them. As teachers, we decided to weight collaboration most heavily for their assessment and the students know this. They’ve been provided with the assessment breakdown so they know what they are working towards.

And that brings me to what I think is probably the most important element of this PBL task. Our classroom climate and their level of trust in me. I work incredibly hard in my classes to establish a respectful classroom climate where sharing is encouraged. I try to take an interest in my students and develop positive relationships with every one of them. This doesn’t mean I’m a pushover – far from it. I have high standards and expect all of them to work to their best of their ability, and I’ll ride them if they falter in this. My feeling is that there is trust in our classroom. They know I’m working hard for them and they trust me to make the right call in relation to their performance. If we didn’t have this, I’m not sure I’d be feeling so positive about this task, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be either.

It’s not over. We’ve had the school holiday break happening now and some of the groups are in the process of creating their videos, testing their theories, writing their blog posts, making their books, interviewing their subjects and whatever other method of capture for their ideas they’ve come up with. When we return, it’s to a lesson where they can come together as a team again to plan their presentation that will take place in the first week back. We’ve asked them to think about audience, and have suggested they invite people in to view their presentations to meet the requirement of having a public audience. I’m not sure if this is going to happen for all groups, but we have organised for a combined session where the Yr 10 cohort will come together as a group and each small group can showcase something from their task they’d like to share with everyone. I am very much looking forward to seeing their completed tasks – spending time with them all in their investigation and process stages has me excited about the possibilities of what sharing will take place in the presentation phase.

From my perspective, this has been one of the most rewarding activities I’ve been involved in this year. I’m invested in it and can feel that passion for what I do apparent when I’m interacting with the students. I’m not sure if what we’ve done is entirely true to PBL, but I do know we’ve done our level best to understand the process and try and make it happen. It’s exciting and it’s meeting some of the achievement standards of the Australian Curriculum for Yr 10 English as well as quite a few of the elements of the General Capabilities. Once again, my thanks go to Bianca Hewes for being such an inspiration and for helping me to see how PBL can fit into the structure of our curriculum. I’ll keep you posted as to what transpires when I return to school next week.

Australian Curriculum Conference – Toorak College

Toorak College (where I teach!) is hosting ‘Exploring and Implementing the Australian Curriculum‘ on the 23rd and 24th of July. This conference is an opportunity to engage with key people in a variety of curriculum fields who are going to share their understanding of the new curriculum with participants. I know there are many teachers who have perhaps read some of the documentation, but have questions regarding the implementation process. This conference is a wonderful opportunity to have some of those questions clarified.

What follows is directly from the conference program.


There are three clusters of keynote speeches in the conference and in total 11 keynotes.

Cluster 1 – Structure and General Capabilities

Keynote Speech 1 (by Professor Barry McGaw – ACARA)
Australian Curriculum to Promote 21st Century Learning

The Australian Curriculum includes a clear focus on major disciplines of knowledge as well as on general capabilities that are sometimes described as 21st Century skills or competencies. This balance of focus is important and deliberate. The curriculum also focuses on three cross-curriculum priorities that deserve current attention. The presentation will explain the logic of the structure and its consequences.

Biography of the Speaker:

Professor Barry McGaw is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne and Chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. He has previously been Director for Education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Executive Director of the Australian Council for Educational Research.

Keynote Speech 2 (by Dr. David Howes – VCAA)
Implementing the Australian Curriculum: from National to State Level

This address will explore the challenges and opportunities of whole curriculum design during the iterative development of the Australian Curriculum.

Biography of the Speaker:

Dr. David Howes is the General Manager of the Curriculum Division of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA). He worked from 2003 – ¬2006 as a technical adviser with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) in Cambodia. Prior to that, he worked with the Victorian Department of Education and taught and held curriculum leadership positions for ten years in schools in the western suburbs of Melbourne and in London. He has completed post-graduate studies in education and public sector administration at the Institute of Education, University of London; Monash University; the Australia-New Zealand School of Government and the University of Melbourne. His professional interests include curriculum design, policy sociology, the nexus between school and higher education and micro-level studies of aid and development. David’s publications include school text books; refereed journal articles on student learning; book chapters on school curriculum reform and the impact of globalisation on higher education in South-East Asia and contributions to subject association journals.

Keynote Speech 3 (by Mr Tony Brandenburg – President of the Australian Computers in Education Council)
Technology as a general capability is not general, at all!

Tony will explore ICT as a general capability in the Australian Curriculum. He will challenge his audience to use technology in their teaching and in the students learning. He will explore social media, mobile technology and cloud computing as learning tools. He will also encourage participants to explore the Horizon Report as a way of thinking about the future of digital technologies in an education setting.

Biography of the Speaker:

Tony Brandenburg has taught at all levels of education both in Australia and internationally and has worked with government departments in Australia and the Middle East. At present he works as Professional Development Manager for the Victorian Institute of Teaching.

He is an experienced educator who has been involved with educational technology for more than 30 years. Currently he is a Director on the Board of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and is a member of the ISTE International Committee.

He is President of the Australian Computers in Education Council, which also awarded him a fellowship in 2010.He is a past president of ICTEV, the Victorian teacher association, which focuses on the use of ICT by teachers.

He has spent much of his teaching life working with technology, arguing for better resources and challenging much of the educational status quo in relation to ICT. He believes that passionate advocacy, excellent information and clear goals and objectives are essential when dealing with system and government authorities.

He has significant experience with the ‘NETS’, especially in lifting their usage in Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East.In 2005 he was presented with the Australian Leader of the Year in Educational Technology. He lists his passions as spending quality time with his family, educational technology pedagogy, strategic planning/policy development, travel and snow skiing. (Usually in that order!)

Keynote Speech 4 (by Ms Robyn Marshall – Director of Teaching and Learning at St Leonard’s College)
Using the Understanding by Design curriculum framework to integrate the Australian Curriculum

How best should we integrate the Australian Curriculum? How can we move from the content based, textbook driven curriculum to a concept based inquiry curriculum? Fundamentally, how can we use the Australian Curriculum to enhance learning for all our students? The Australian Curriculum can provide an opportunity for schools to have a significant impact on the teaching and learning process. The Understanding by Design framework, (often known as Backward Design) offers some of the answers to the questions posed above. By creating high quality units, based on the Australian Curriculum Achievement Standards, as well as reconceptualising the nature of teaching and of assessment, student learning can be ignited and the role of the teacher can be transformed.

Biography of the Speaker:

Mrs Robyn Marshall has taught secondary students in 4 states and sees the tremendous value of the Australian Curriculum as a unifying force, rather than something that divides. She began her teaching career in country New South Wales, before moving to Canberra, Adelaide and finally Victoria. Recently Robyn has specialised in the Middle Years, in particular the development of innovative Middle Years Programs in Nanjing, China and Clunes in country Victoria. She is currently Director of Teaching and Learning at St Leonard’s College and has successfully led the development of the Understanding By Design framework in a number of schools.

Cluster 2 – Cross Curriculum Priorities

Keynote Speech 5 (by Ms Jacinta Mooney)
Incorporating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures into your School Curriculum

This address explores how the national Cross Curricula Priority of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island histories and culture can be incorporated into an individual school curriculum. What opportunities does this priority present for curriculum design and guarantee that students attain the skills and knowledge intended by the framework.

Biography of the Speaker:

Jacinta Mooney is a secondary English and History teacher who spent nine years in the Northern Territory working in Indigenous health and Indigenous education. Jacinta has extensive experience living and working in Aboriginal communities, including Ngukurr, Wadeye and Santa Teresa. Jacinta focused on developing curriculum and strengthening the relationship between the school and the community. After two years training educators in Ethiopia, Jacinta is working in high schools in the North-Western suburbs of Melbourne.

Keynote Speech 6 (by Ms Jennifer Ure – Asia Education Foundation)
Implementing Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia in the Australian Curriculum

Asia is now the region currently emerging as one of history’s greatest catalysts for worldwide change. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians calls for all Australians students to develop new skills, knowledge and understanding related to the Asian region and Australia’s engagement with Asia in order to meet the challenges and opportunities of living and working with our neighbours.

The Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia priority in the Australian Curriculum provides essential learning for all Australian students. This session will look at how this priority appears in the Australian Curriculum; what it means for developing curriculum programs and presents resources and ideas to support its inclusion in classroom practice. Included will be the Australian context for learning about the Asian region and examples of Asia Education Foundation programs that support schools’ implementation of the Asia priority.

Biography of the Speaker:

Jennifer Ure has been with the Asia Education Foundation since 2008. She manages national projects including the Leading 21 Century Schools: engage with Asia project, a national leadership initiative for principals and school leaders. In addition, Jennifer manages the AEF’s web portal that provides services and resources for teachers and schools to implement the Australian Curriculum cross-curriculum priority of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia.

Prior to working with the AEF, Jennifer worked in the Northern Territory for five years as the Curriculum Officer for Studies of Asia with the Department of Education and Training. In that role she delivered professional learning for educators and schools across the Territory. An important element of that work was linking studies of Asia with Indigenous education in remote schools.

Keynote Speech 7 (by Mr Kerry Bolger – Principal Cornish College)
Sustainability – the new educational imperative: more than just environmental education and is no longer an optional extra

This presentation will provide an insight into how one school has integrated educating for sustainability through its Prep to Year 9 curriculum. Participants will be introduced to a ‘sustainable thinking disposition” developed by Mr Kerry Bolger and Mrs Marcia Behrenbruch over the last decade.

In presenting the Bolger/Behrenbruch model of teaching and learning the audience will be challenged to consider the concept of sustainability in its broadest sense as the central purpose of a 21st Century education.

Biography of the Speaker:

Kerry Bolger is currently the Principal of Cornish College. He is a secondary trained teacher who started his teaching career with the Ministry of Education. After 20 years as an Economics/History teacher he was appointed as the Head of the St Leonard’s College Cornish Campus in 1991. Kerry has a Bachelor of Economics and Bachelor of Special Education. He was awarded an Internal Teaching Fellowship to England in 1985 and was the recipient of a National Excellence in Teaching Award in 2006. His staff were awarded the Herald Sun Teaching Team of the Year in 2005 and the Campus was judged the Sustainable School Champion in 2005 by the University of New South Wales. Kerry has co-authored a number of articles on sustainability and he and his staff have developed a model of teaching and learning linking education for sustainable living with a concept driven, multidisciplinary, inquiry based educational program. Kerry was awarded a John Laing Professional Development Award for his contribution to the education of others in education by Principals Australia in 2011. He is a past President of the Victorian Branch of the Commonwealth League of Exchange teachers and is currently the Independent School Council of Australia representation on the National Sustainable School Network and the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative.

Cluster 3 – Learning Areas

History (by Ms Annabel Astbury)
The Shapes of the Australian Curriculum: History – Many voices, many stories

In this session, Annabel Astbury will examine the Australian Curriculum: History and present ideas on how to approach the challenges of implementing it at school level. The focus will be on the Foundation to Year 10 curriculum but will also include discussion on the progress which has been made on senior courses thus far.

Biography of the Speaker:

Annabel Astbury is the Executive Director of the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria. Her role is a varied one which includes overseeing the operations of the association, focusing on the direction and development of professional learning programs for teachers; advising and consulting with curriculum and assessment authorities.

Science (by Prof Denis Goodrum)
Australian Science Curriculum: Implementation and implications

Biography of the Speaker:

Denis Goodman is an Emeritus Professor and former Dean of Education of the University of Canberra. He has been involved in many national and international activities in Science education. In 1998 he was a visiting scholar at the National Research Council in Washington DC, working on a project examining inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. He is presently Chair of the ACT Teacher Quality Institute

National projects for which Denis has been responsible include:

  • Primary Investigations – a curriculum resource for primary schools with an associated professional learning model.
  • Status and Quality of Teaching and Learning of Science in Australian Schools.
  • Collaborative Australian Secondary Science Project (CASSP) that evaluated a teacher change model through the development of integrated curriculum and professional development resources.
  • Science by Doing – concept plan 2006 and Stage One 2009-11
  • Australian School Science Education: National Action Plan 2008–12
  • National Science Curriculum Framing Paper 2008

English (by Mr Sean Box – Acting Curriculum Manager VCAA)
English Goes National

This session will outline some of the new opportunities represented by the implementation of the Australian Curriculum: English. It will provide participants with an overview of the new English curriculum and how it differs from the current VELS curriculum and much common contemporary practice in Victorian schools. A particular focus of the session will be on the place and role of texts in the new curriculum and the inter-relationships between the three strands of Language, Literacy and Literature.

Biography of the Speaker:

Sean Box is Acting Curriculum Manager of English at the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA). Prior to working in the Curriculum Division, he held a position with Student Learning Division of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD). He has contributed to Australian Curriculum consultation and implementation in Victoria and Queensland.

Mathematics (by Dr Michael Evans)
Shape of the Mathematics Curriculum

Biography of the Speaker:

Dr Michael Evans is responsible for the ICE-EM Mathematics program. He has a PhD in Mathematics from Monash University and a Diploma of Education from La Trobe University. Before coming to ICE-EM, he was Head of Mathematics at Scotch College, Melbourne, and involved with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority in various capacities. He has also taught in public schools. In 1999 he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Law by Monash University for his contribution to Mathematics Education, and in 2001 he received the Bernhard Neumann Award for contributions to Mathematics enrichment in Australia.

I’d encourage you to alert your teachers to this conference and sign up to attend. We really do need to have a complete understanding of all facets of the new curriculum. It would be great to see teachers from all curriculum areas increase their understanding of something that is going to impact us all.

VATE Conference – English and the Australian Curriculum

I attended a VATE Conference today about English and the Australian Curriculum. I’ve tried to export it here using Storify‘s  export option, but it didn’t work. ‘Internal server error 500’ was the message I received. : (

You can read it by visiting this link. Not as impressive as an embedded Storify, but what can you do when technology doesn’t cooperate. I hope you find it useful.

Australian Curriculum and the General Capabilities – the role of the Teacher Librarian

I delivered this presentation at Marist College in Canberra on Tuesday. You can see it embedded in my wiki, or click this link to view. (Once again, I’m frustrated that it can’t be embedded in this blog) It’s not an earth shaking presentation, but it does condense some information from the following ACARA documents:

The Shape of the Australian Curriculum Version 3

General Capabilities and the Australian Curriculum

I’ve tried to identify where a Teacher Librarian can make an impact with the integration of the General Capabilities into the learning areas. Hopefully, the presentation is useful. Feel free to use it in your schools to help people come to an understanding of what is expected with the Australian Curriculum.

Thanks to Geraldine McNulty for arranging for me to visit Marist College to talk to Teacher-Librarians from Canberra. A quick visit, but a good one!

Moving to a Networked School Community using ISTE Standards, Australian Curriculum and an Edublogs platform.

It’s been a busy year. Really busy. Not only have we opened a new library, and dealt with moving and fitting out new learning spaces, but we have been leading change in our school around information fluency understandings and enabling our students’ growth as digital citizens.

What’s become apparent to my staff and I, is the pressing need for our students to become information fluent for the age they are living in. This means addressing all of the traditional information literacy understandings we have always concentrated on, but also helping our students have an understanding of new technologies and how to use them effectively, understanding the ethical use of digital resources, and knowledge of the importance of creating and maintaining a positive digital footprint. It’s not only the students who need this knowledge base; our teachers need to be well versed too.

So, what are we doing about this?

At the end of last year, with the support of our Head of Learning, we presented what we called an Information Fluency Initiative to our Heads of Faculties and proposed we begin the introduction of this for 2011. First up, we introduced to staff the idea of Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge – the TPACK model, developed by Koehler & Mishra.


When using this with staff, I see a lot of nodding heads. They understand the need to integrate technology to support their content knowledge and pedagogical practice. They don’t always know how to do this using new technology tools that support meaningful learning, and aren’t just gimmicky add-ons. As Teacher-Librarians, we work hard at staying on top of new ideas in this arena. We have committed to work closely with our staff, both in the library and in classrooms, to help staff and students come to grips with new ideas using technology to support their learning.

When looking at existing and new ideas for curriculum offerings, we are encouraging our staff to use the SAMR model to inform their planning. I first saw this last year at the AIS Conference, where Martin Levins was leading a sandpit group talking about how to use it to modify learning tasks.

Again, when explaining this model, I see heads nodding in agreement.  Teachers ‘get it’ when you use models like this, and they pay attention to models that have a research base. SAMR was developed by Ruben Puentedura, and from my perspective, it, along with TPACK, should be the basis of any discussion in schools about the use of technology in the development of learning tasks.

The next layer of our Information Fluency initiative was the development of Information Fluency certificates for Year 7, 8 and 9. These have been created using the ISTE NETS for Students as the basis. Key understandings and skills they introduce as critical for today’s students are the following:

  • Demonstrate creativity and innovation
  • Communicate and collaborate
  • Conduct research and use information
  • Think critically, solve problems, and make decisions
  • Use technology effectively and productively

We have used ISTE’s NETS.S curriculum planning tool to help us identify skills we think students should have acquired by the end of  each year.  We were looking to develop an identifiable skill set that we could measure in terms of acquisition. I’m not a strict proponent of a ‘tick the box’ measuring scale by any stretch of the imagination, but I did want something concrete that we could use with our students and staff.  We recognise the need to address the upcoming Australian Curriculum and looked to ACARA to see what was being developed there. What is contained within the General Capabilities underpins meaningful teaching and learning, and is really quite closely aligned with the ISTE NETS for Students. What we have done is to tag each skill within our Information Fluency Certificates with the appropriate General Capability it addresses.  As our staff plan curriculum, we feel these certificates will help them to identify how they can embed new technologies and practice into their delivery of curriculum, knowing that they are addressing aspects of the General Capabilities that ACARA have identified as necessary.

What has taken up considerable time this year, has been the introduction of an Edublogs platform to enable all students from Years 7 – 10 to have an ePortfolio as a means of documenting and demonstrating their learning. In the early stages of planning this Information Fluency initiative, I could see we were going to need some means of sharing the learning that was happening in classrooms. We investigated a WordPress Multi user setup, but felt that the management of this would fall on individuals already tied up with full loads, and our under the pump IT team who already work tirelessly to maintain a robust network. An Edublogs platform that costs, but allows for blogs to be set up with our school’s domain name and comes with support, was decided to be a more workable option. The initial creation and linking of blogs to home page class blogs took some time at the start of the year, as did the work that took place in classrooms teaching students how they managed their blogs/ePortfolios. We have allowed students to select their own themes and customise sidebars with widgets. One of the critical elements of the set up was having students create categories within their blogs/ePortfolios. We recommended they set up a category for every subject they were studying, and other categories that reflected key school directions and co-curricular involvement. Students were taught how to write their posts and add a category or multiple categories to each post. This has made it easy for subject teachers to check into student blogs and click on their subject category, seeing all of the posts written by that student for their subject area.

We have encouraged our teachers to use these these blogs/eportfolios for formative assessment, and students have been encouraged to use them on their own initiative to write about what they have been doing in their classrooms and in co-curricular activities. Over the course of the year we have seen some wonderful ePortfolios created, supported by teachers who can see the positive benefits for our students as they create their own digital footprint. When you see a student’s blog as Google’s top result for a search for Yr 7 Unit of Inquiry, it’s pretty impressive. (One of our staff members was conducting just such a search, and sent me an email excitedly relaying what she’d found!) Students have embedded Clustrmaps in their sidebars, and have seen the reach they have by writing in public spaces. We’ve even recently had the author Susanne Gervay leave a comment on a student’s post that was discussing her novel, ‘Butterflies’. Not every student ePortfolio is brilliant, and some year levels are working much better than others, but we are in our infancy still. It’s accepted that this is part and parcel of the pedagogy now, and we will continue to develop the platform in 2012 and onwards. What these blogs do is provide terrific feedback for students, something that has been a key focus area for our staff as we explore elements of John Hattie’s research. It’s also really encouraging to see students providing feedback to one another  – they are remarkably supportive of one another. We’ve also seen parents and grandparents leave comments. It’s this critical school/home nexus that is seeing our school move closer to a Networked School Community, the type proposed by Associate Professor Glenn Finger and Mal Lee.

Our Edublogs platform has seen many of our students develop skills identified on the Information Fluency Certificates we created. We do recognise the need for the certificates to be fluid documents responding to new technologies as they arise and present our students with new opportunities and challenges. 2011 has been a year of development, and 2012 will be a year of  implementation. We need to map our curriculum to ensure all faculty areas take on board the skill set and understandings we have identified as being critical for the development of effective citizens in our world today. This is not easy work, particularly as it often means teachers need to accept the idea of working in a co-teaching capacity when they themselves don’t have the necessary skill set.

Something I would like to look closely at next year is the AITSL (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) National Professional Standards for Teachers and see how the work we are doing aligns with these standards. Helping teachers see the connectedness between school initiatives and their professional development is an important part of this process.

As a Teacher-Librarian, this is critical work. We are working as change agents in our school, and in the process, doing the best kind of advocacy we can for our profession. This is the work of a Teacher-Librarian today, if you are prepared to stay abreast of change and develop the skill set that can move your school and student population where they need to be.

Talking plagiarism with students

Today I spent some time with students discussing the issue of plagiarism. It’s an important issue to discuss, and one that I would prefer to cover at the start of the year rather than nearer the end of it, but I take heart from the fact that we are having these important discussions with our student population. I thought I’d share some of the resources I used to put my presentation together. First up, I think it’s important to note that one of the General capabilities that need to be addressed in the upcoming Australian Curriculum is Ethical behaviour. Here’s the information pertinent to this from the Australian Curriculum site.

In the Australian Curriculum students develop ethical behaviour as they learn to understand and act in accordance with ethical principles. This includes understanding the role of ethical principles, values and virtues in human life; acting with moral integrity; acting with regard for others; and having a desire and capacity to work for the common good. As they develop ethical behaviour students learn to:

  • recognise that everyday life involves consideration of competing values, rights, interests and social norms
  • identify and investigate moral dimensions in issues
  • develop an increasingly complex understanding of ethical concepts, the status of moral knowledge and accepted values and ethical principles
  • explore questions such as:
    • What is the meaning of right and wrong and can I be sure that I am right?
    • Why should I act morally?
    • Is it ever morally justifiable to lie?
    • What role should intuition, reason, emotion, duty or self-interest have in ethical decision making?

Understanding the need to behave with academic honesty certainly is an ethical understanding our students need to have.

The definition of plagiarism I used came from the Smartcopying website, an excellent source of information about copyright for Australian schools and TAFE institutions.

“Plagiarism occurs where a student uses someone else’s ideas or words in their work and pretends they are their own. If the student has used a lot of someone else’s words without that person’s permission, copyright infringement may also occur.”

A conversation like this can be a bit dry, so I used some recent controversy surrounding Beyonce  and accusations of plagiarism of choreography to spark the student’s interest. Watch for yourself to see what you think.

Interestingly, I’ve just seen a post where Beyonce has admitted that the Belgian choreographer’s work was an influence on her latest video. I’ll keep watching this story as it’s bound to have some good fodder for future discussions with students.

We explored our school’s plagiarism policy and discussed actions the students could take to avoid falling into the plagiarism trap. We discussed effective notetaking, and techniques such as making dot points under information they might have cut and pasted from the internet to ensure they synthesise the information and write in their own words. The importance of proper attribution of resources they have used in a bibliography was explored, and I reminded them of the SLASA  online referencing generator we have subscribed to, and mentioned EasyBib, as we are just starting the process of subscribing to this and think it is going to be incredibly useful for our student population. (We need to use APA style here in Australia, hence the need to purchase a site license rather than use the free version).

I wanted our students to understanding the view Universities take on incidents of plagiarism, so we took a look at the University of Melbourne’s page about Academic honesty and plagiarism. 


I really liked the quote they use on their page, and made a point of discussing it in detail.

The most important attribute that the University of Melbourne would like to see in its graduates is a profound respect for truth, and for the ethics of scholarship. The reason why this is so important is that we want our graduates to be capable of independent thought, to be able to do their own work, and to know how to acknowledge the work of others.
Professor Peter McPhee (Provost 2007-9)

We had noted that the University of Melbourne uses Turnitin to check for incidents of plagiarism, something we do not have at our school. I showed the students Plagiarism Checker and explained how we are able to insert text and receive a list of Google links that may provide the source of where they have obtained information, if they have indeed plagiarised.

I then thought it wise to show the students a site they could use to help them check their work for incidents of plagiarism. We have to always remember we are dealing with young people, and even though they may have been part of a discussion like this, there’s no guarantee what they have heard has stuck. Sometimes, their issues with plagiarism are not because they have deliberately intended to cheat, but more because they have not understood that cutting and pasting people’s ideas is the wrong thing to do. I showed them PaperRater, and there was a fair bit of interest in this site.

I’ve only just discovered this site thanks to a tweet in recent days, so I haven’t had time to check its effectiveness. Another similar site is Grammarly, and I discovered this when I saw my son using it recently. He was using it to check the quality of the grammar in his writing, and I have to say, I was pretty impressed that he was the least bit interested!

I need to learn more about these sites, who is behind them, and how they work. If anyone is armed with more knowledge that will help us all out in understanding them more, I’d appreciate you leaving some feedback as a comment.

I’m pretty sure today’s discussion went somewhere towards hitting the mark with these students. This is the kind of discussion we need to continually revisit in our schools, even when kids tell us they’ve heard it all before!


Telling it like it is, the Matt Damon way.

I’ve always liked Matt Damon. I don’t know him personally, obviously, him being a major Hollywood actor and all, but I’ve always liked what I saw as a no nonsense approach to stardom every time I saw him interviewed.

Today, I like him even more. Today, he made a special trip to Washington DC, to address a rally of teachers protesting near the White House about the regimen of standardised testing that seems to fuel the North American system of education. A system that Australian political honchos appear to want to emulate as we churn out NAPLAN tests every year, and look to introduce an Australian Curriculum in 2013 that suggests the inclusion of increased testing to “validate” that everyone is on the same page.

Take a read of Matt’s considered words, and see if you agree that this is a man who is making a whole lot of sense and who is probably speaking for the majority of citizens out there. (Apologies if there is some clause somewhere not allowing me to publish his speech in full. I’m pretty sure Matt won’t mind.)

“I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome.

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am … can be tested.

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, ‘My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.’ That was in the ’70s when you could talk like that.

I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes.

I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.

I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.

This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.

So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. … Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.”

*Update – here’s the video of the speech. Thanks Neil Winton for tweeting the link.

Today, I was reminded of the important place teachers hold in student’s lives. I heard a voice say, “Hi Mrs. Luca, remember, me, Kirrily?” I did remember her, last name and all. Kirrily was a student I taught in my second year out of teacher’s college, 22 years ago. She was the lead in the school play I directed that year, and today she remembered the time we spent together. She introduced me to her son, and proudly told me the approach she takes to parenting her children, and she said it probably had something to do with the good teaching she received at school. No doubt it has a lot to do with the good parenting she received too, but it made me stop and think about the impact we have on young people’s lives. Kirrily is 38 now, but she remembered me fondly, as did I, her.

Thank you Matt Damon. Your words have meaning not only in your country, but in countries elsewhere too. Our political power players need reminding of the prescient need for our children to be creative, to love learning, to be curious, to be passionate about what excites them. Shading in yet another bubble on an out of context test paper, and prepping for weeks in advance to ensure they get it right so that a school looks the goods on the My School site, is not going to produce the citizens this country needs.

Teaching the teachers – the words of Mark Pesce

If you’re an educator today, and you aren’t reading the words of futurist Mark Pesce, then you ought to rectify that immediately. He presented at a conference in Wollongong today (I know not whom for, but it definitely was connected to education) and I’m sure he made an impact. He made an impact on me, and I didn’t see him deliver the presentation. I read it on his blog, the human network – what happens after we’re all connected? The great thing about Mark Pesce is that he values sharing his thinking and makes it easily accessible. If you want to learn from him, you can. You just need to make the effort to read.

His presentation today was entitled, Helicopter Lessons, his thesis about childhood development and hyperconnectivity. There are lessons here for teachers. Many of them. Lessons we ought to be taking heed of. Mark expressed something I feel about the opportunities being presented to us now with the onset of the proposed Australian Curriculum. (yes people, that is what they are calling it now, forget that National Curriculum terminology. Get with the program!) Here’s what Mark said (but he needs to catch up with the change in name too : ));

We’re very lucky, because just at this moment in time, the Commonwealth has gifted us with the best reason we’re ever likely to receive – the National Curriculum.  Now that every student, everywhere across Australia, is meant to be covering the same materials, we have every reason to connect together – student to student, teacher to teacher, school to school, state to state.  The National Curriculum is thought of as a mandate, but it’s really the architecture of a network.  It describes how we all should connect together around a body of knowledge.  If we know that we should be teaching calculus or Mandarin or the Eureka Stockade rebellion, we have an opportunity to connect together, pool our knowledge and our ignorance, and work together.  We can use our hyperconnectivity to hyperempower our ability to work toward understanding.

This could be a gift, if we can move our teaching community to an understanding that shared knowledge is a very powerful tool. It’s a huge shift for some in the teaching profession, who are too frightened to load their resources into a single site learning management system, let alone share with a community of teacher learners nationwide. But it’s something worth working towards. Hopefully the communities of teacher learners that are forming in networks like Twitter can be the connective and cognitive glue that starts this process moving forward. Wouldn’t it be great if an organisation like DEEWR actually sat up and noticed what is happening at the grassroots level already and supported and encouraged communities of practice like this? Now there’s a revolutionary idea. Someone should run with that one. : )

Make sure you read Mark’s essay. He touches on so much more than the sampling I have shared here. I find his words resonate for days and help me to formulate my own thinking. I’m sure you’ll benefit from the reading.