Lesson Transitions

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About 9 months ago I started working as a casual academic for Deakin University, Faculty of Education, in Victoria. Students are placed in schools for at least 80 days, depending upon their course. They work along students and experienced teachers and my role is one of professional support to both student and teacher.

It’s within this role that I began to appreciate that my role is often like a bridge where I connect the University’s course based on answering the why questions of education with the practical how questions in teaching. Of course this is a simple dichotomy that masks the many aspects of learning at university but useful I feel in this context.

So why this post?

Well in the past 9 months similar questions are being raised by “teachers in training” and I thought some useful bridge type links might be useful.

The links connect David Sousa work on connecting brain research with teaching.

In planning lessons or episodes, as some call them, teachers in training often don’t recognise that it’s when students move from one phase of the lesson to the next (transitions) that learning is affected.

I’ve focused on transitions before primary (mini-lessons) and recency (summaries or reflections) blocks  as transitions when not intentionally planned might lead to:

I’ve seen whole groups of students move at once (pictured above) and others in managed groups. I’ve seen some transitions between the mini lesson and the practice task take 15 minutes (is it any wonder why some students forget the instructions) and others take 1 minute.

There is no one way for students to transition – there are many and the reasons vary. But some general tips might be useful.


Please remember effect transitions are ones that are also practiced, in some cases daily in term 1 as we build effective learning communities in classrooms.

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Painting a new school’s curriculum and pedagogy.

As an educator, and now consultant, it’s hard not to get excited when you are asked to support a newish school develop its curriculum and pedagogy.

 In many ways, it’s like a starting a painting with a blank canvas, or is it?

I was asked by the Principal to support a new independent school, 18 months into its journey, after what has been described by those present as a very rocky start. The staff was “turned over” after the first 12 months with the existing teachers, all graduates, employed in the last 8-12 months. The contracted educational consultant/s to support the teachers have similarly come and gone and the pressure on a new Principal to prove to the community a vibrant and successful school growing.

At this point my painting was rather messy:

What might you do?

For me, flying over to Vietnam on our preplanned holiday, provided the perfect opportunity for some reflection and how I might tackle this opportunity. It didn’t hurt that this reflection occurred whilst soaking up the sun by the pool. I was eager of course to just dive in and not just the pool. Having the time to ponder, now that I’m writing about it, seemed critical. I recall closing my eyes, through my sunglasses, trying to picture the faces of “experts” or key words that I had heard that had meant sense to me. I wrote down some thoughts at odd times (and I do mean odd) during the holiday on serviettes, on menus, on brochures of tours we did.  Just before I started at the school I used the world’s favourite research tool
to connect the phrases from the menus and brochures and BINGO Michael Fullan’s work appeared.

 It wasn’t a total surprise that I remembered some of his messages as I took my leadership team to a 2-day workshop with him and still had some of his notes in my library.

The “Fullan sense” was about conditions you build at times of change. In my own words

1.      Love your employees is about focusing on the students, teachers, principal and volunteers in the organization which is what I did by consulting with the teachers on their strengths as the first focus for collective improvement, “Reading”.

I recall some surprise being expressed at the time that we weren’t focusing on what needs to be done (implied our gaps). I suppose teachers seem apprehensive about improvement work when its continuously based, usually by outsiders or experts (read consultants here I suppose), on judgements of weaknesses.   

2.     Connect Peers with Purpose is about building a team approach. We met as a team to use a common English planning proforma. The proforma, initially developed my myself as the consultant, contained key strategies teachers had discussed (learning intentions), was accomplishable as we only planned 8/10 lessons in a fortnight. We built a sense of camaraderie by sharing the work, having a sense of continuous learning in classrooms as I committed to modelling some lessons or releasing teachers to share a strategy in another’s room. (planning)

3.     Capacity building prevails for us initially centered around learning to use a common assessment tool (in Reading) and then plan instructional practices to achieve improved student learning outcomes. We chose what the school had already purchased the Fountas and Pinnell  Benchmarking tool. I started the assessments of students in classroom, where possible, and then under the gradual release model had the teachers complete the assessments.

Now we are at the end of term 3 having committed to further team planning next term for Reading using the data and some common instructional strategies: guided reading and reciprocal teaching and there is a real sense of shared purpose about our work.

Of course, we have started building the other 3 conditions and there’s learning to share from our planning and use of assessments but that’s another post or two. AND I wonder what the paintings may turn out to be.

How might other consultants start and what change planning would they have used? That’s a question I’d really like some feedback on?


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Why have learning intentions without success criteria?

John, in this 9 min clip, puts the case for why we need to explain what we intend students to learn, why and how they might self assess success. It’s hard to defend the opposite.

In this clip John’s work on effect sizes are explained about teacher clarity (intentions and success criteria)

This clip details how you might go about creating intentions and success criteria.

Further Resources

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Is Dante’s Hell a view of adaptive challenges? If so, hold onto that moral compass.

I recently watched a TED talk by Dan Leahy – The Dance of Learning Meets the Adaptive Challenge.

In the talk Dan uses HeifetzGlashow and Linsky’s need for adaptive change which is about facing the unknown and having to learn new skills to solve, as yet, unanswered questions. He liken’s these inquiries to Dante’s Inferno (pictured below) for it will take courageous curiosity, leaders like Virgil (who helped Dante enter these gates of hell), a little balcony viewing, compassion for our human side and our capacity for error, and generative conversations to see the journey through. Its quite a vivid image – one that might put inquiries off.

When Dante entered the gates of hell he had to survive nine concentric circles of torment. The last circle was treachery or betrayal which unfortunately might be apt for leaders of adaptive change. The constant courageous yet compassionate challenging of often unsubstantiated opinion or deafening silence that define the fight or flight walls built by many mean leaders cannot always see those who conspire against the question or inquiry. So perhaps Dan’s vivid image wasn’t so far off – I wonder?

So as leaders of these adaptive challenges we need to a strong moral purpose to stay the course (a little of Virgil helps). In Dan’s case it was his grandson, who if he posed the question why didn’t you try Dan to change …. that for me he might answer … I tried and these were some of the effects.

To my colleagues in practice who have just completed the Data Wise course at Harvard I have loved your tweets and wish you all hope in your journeys as you take that adaptive change to your communities. To my colleagues here in Australia as you wind up term 2 (and the reporting season) recharge your batteries for the journey is not yet complete.

So what’s your moral purpose?

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Effective Lesson Planning: classroom systems and lesson sequencing

This is a follow up post number 2 on effective lesson planning. Now that we understand lessons should go differing lengths of time 20 – 40 minutes, what would that look like in one of the timetable blocks of 90-120 minutes.

If we were to focus on one discipline e.g. English within a primary classroom, this is generally taught in the morning blocks in this case either 120 min (block 1) or 90 minutes (block 2).

Hold on I’m presuming that trainee teachers have recognized the many classroom learning environment systems and their expectations and consequences that teachers establish in the first 20 days or so of the school year.

First, it’s important that class teachers have systems in place to start the day. Each teacher organizes this in this own way but what’s important is that it’s done efficiently (within the first 5 minutes at the start of a session – tops). Some teachers have tubs out for students to place their lunch orders, money collection (e.g. for excursions), return their home reading book and note their attendance (some as they enter the classroom).

Resources for classroom systems

What I have seen unfortunately is the teacher take 15 minutes or more to call the roll – some chanting or singing rhymes. This is very valuable instruction time and to take 15 minutes or so seems a waste of prime time. Sousa would say that student remember who is present in classroom more than your first learning intention. Anyway, teachers at the end of the session can complete marking the roll (if required manually), entering money into a cash book etc… I know there are special days where rolls have to be taken to the office but surely, we have technology solutions here.

Some teachers have the daily organization written on the whiteboard and have trained students again in the first 20 days of school what’s expected when they see a subject or task on the whiteboard. It’s really important that these routines are practiced early in the school year. It might be they see reading, spelling and writing lessons (their length e.g. 20 minutes or so) and what’s expected to be on the student’s table ready when the instruction period is finished.

I once heard a Math’s educator talk about bird’s eye view of what the table should look like (see drawing below) and had student set their tables up at the start of the lesson or the end of the previous lesson (just before recess). I have used this and thought the mental image a perfect way to communicate to visually dominated young people.

Anyway, allowing for 5 minutes means students are now settled onto the group instructional area with their tables set up. This table set up will really aid transition time during lessons and teachers repeating instructions (a question often raised by trainee teachers).

Additional Resources to support transitions:

Of course, there are many more systems in classrooms including: going to the toilet, eating fruit during lessons, classroom monitors who usually take down chairs from tables or switch on computers etc… but the point I’m making is that trainee teachers need to reflect on these for efficiency and what they might replicate or strengthen.

Anyway, to the main point of the post sequencing lessons of differing lengths in the morning period in English.

Here one has to consider that there may be parent helpers in classrooms in the morning and what might they do whilst lessons proceed. Often parents like to help out with hearing students read in which case you might start the day with Reading which may last for 40 minutes. Again, I’ve assumed the parents have completed some school training program that explains school processes and learning organization – if not then its left to the individual teacher to do this in the first 20 days or so of the school year. So, the rostered parents (another system) come in and might for the first 10 – 15 minutes return all the home reading books to the correct tubs, organized the student home reading folders ready to hear student read (a few pages) during the first down time period (where the students are completing a task to reinforce or practice a learning intention). There lots to say about parent helpers here but I’ll leave that to another post. If there are no parent helpers then the teacher has a greater choice in lesson sequencing.

So, the lesson might proceed for the 30-40 minutes (I’ll speak about the lesson in a 3rd post) followed by some transition period usually 3 or so minutes where students might stretch, music is played, a chant is recited etc… and the student then set up for the following lesson (it’s an advantage here to have a system or birds eye view of the table set up so students are then ready for the next lesson). I usually prefer a shorter 20-minute lesson which could be on spelling or vocabulary development followed by another transition. Finally, you might then have a writing lesson for the last 30-40 minutes of the block. In this sequence (Reading, Spelling, Writing) you have covered 3 basic components of the English curriculum in a 90 or 120-minute period you have had 2 transitions (6 minutes) and you have prepared for the next lesson before recess or lunch.

There are several tips here to support the sequencing:

  • have a class novel or book to read (great if the students are eating before recess or lunch break)
  • have sent of spelling or vocabulary flash cards (many different games you can play here which counts for a repetition of a previous lesson)

I hope that helps paint a picture of sequencing lessons and transitions in-between. If there are any questions or even issues please respond. The next post is on a specific lesson structure keeping in mind student retention.


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Effective Lesson Planning: length of lessons

Some of the questions, concerns and issues raised by trainee teachers so far include:

  • constantly repeating instructions to students
  • students forget what to do
  • students either don’t finish the tasks in the time set or finish in the first 5 minutes with nothing else to do

What these questions raise for me is an understanding of why we plan lessons in the way we do. So I thought some shared understandings about lesson planning here would be useful.

The length of lessons can vary greatly from 20 minutes to 90 minutes.

Most teachers try to fit their lessons into a school timetable that is constructed for many different reasons e.g. when specialist subject lessons occur, compliance with industrial agreements on teacher breaks or administrative time and when support programs like reading recovery occur.  Timetables are not necessarily about when or how its best for students to learn.

The school instructional day is 300 minutes long in Victoria, something like 9.00 am- 11.00 am (then a 30 minute recess) 11.30 am – 1.00 pm (then a 60 minute lunch) and 2.00 pm till 3.30 pm.

So my first bit of advice for trainee teachers is yes you have to comply with a school timetable but don’t let that completely dominate the length of lessons you facilitate. Just because you have 120 minutes (first period) or 90 minutes (second or third periods) does not mean lessons have to be that whole period or even half that period (60 or 45 minute lessons). There are in fact well researched reasons why you vary the length of lessons from 20 to 45 minutes and perhaps even break lessons into smaller blocks .

There are a few key understandings I suggest trainee teachers take note of

  • David Sousa’s research on the brain and student retention, and
  • Ebbinghaus forgetting curve are two

David Sousa’s has written over 20 books on this topic of how the brain learns. One of his points for teachers is about student retention during lessons.

I have presented his work on primacy and recency retention in a typical 40 minute lesson as most lessons presented to students tend to be around this sort of length of time. The diagram illustrates there are two prime times for the retention of new information in a 40 minute lesson: prime time 1 where students remember new information and prime time 2 where near the end of the lesson we revise the key points for a recency effect.

If we were to make the lesson a 20 minute lesson lets look at the student retention blocks (prime times 1 and 2) and you can see the reduced amount of down time. That’s surely a positive.

Now if we combine two twenty-minute lessons together lets look at the effect.

As we can clearly see the amount of prime time 1 where new information is retained with prime time 2 for recency effects they are double that of a 40 minute lesson.

Now if you add Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve into the argument for some short lessons that enable some repetition of new content over 2 or 3 days then the percentage of new information being retained by students is potentially increased.


So how does this answer some of the questions being posed above:

  • If you have shorter lessons then the chance that student forget your instruction (in downtime) is reduced.
  • If you give your instructions before students hit the downtime then there is a greater chance they will be remembered and thus cut constant teacher instructional repetitions.

There are other points to make here about how to structure a lesson be it 20 or 40 minutes and what learning tasks support retention but that will be the subject of my next post.

I hope that’s useful information and as always I welcome feedback.

Some useful links for further information are provided below:

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Working at Deakin University

One of the exciting opportunities that has presented itself this year is to work at Deakin University as a casual academic. What that means is that I work in the professional learning unit supporting trainee teachers in schools learn the skills, strategies, mindset and sense of professionalism required to become an effective graduate teacher.

I’ve been assigned a range of schools across all sectors (State, Independent, Catholic) and students who attended these schools are supported by myself.

I visit them in the school and discuss their curriculum planning and relationships with the teaching staff, parents and young people. I sometimes observe specific lessons to give feedback, act as a resource for both school and system related information and offer advice and support as they transition to employment.

It’s also a great opportunity to reflect on what trainee teachers bring to the profession and some common needs shared by them. It’s this last point that I feel will be a springboard for future posts.

I’d be interested in hearing either some comments on what other people feel our trainee teachers need as they enter the profession or what other universities do to support their students as they enter their professions.

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Dirty Data!

Well I’m now officially retired as a school principal – no really! I’m sleeping well, planning holidays and of course playing more golf. But what about my mind – it’s not ready to give up as an educator.

So I’m now consulting with schools, employed by a university to mentor trainee teachers and training to become a school reviewer.

It’s in the consulting role and supporting school communities to use evidence (data) to adjust instruction that I came across this comedy clip on dirty data. It sums up some early fears about personal and school reputations when we look at data in open ways.

Have a laugh

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Songs can hold our memories!

Certain songs or voices can bring many memories flooding back to us.

It’s 1970 and the happy and even melancholic memories flood back to me when I hear Simon and Garfunkel sing their classics. Its been over 45 years since they split over “professional differences about a film” so their songs now have a haunting feel about them.

Their classic album “Bridge over troubled water” was an early record in my collection for it seemed to sum up some troubled times in the world back then (the assignations of JFK and Martin Luther King and the Vietnam war come straight to mind).

Personally I was turning 17 at the time and about to start my Matriculation having just left the Christian Brothers training college in Bundoora. I turned 18, Gough Whitlam got voted in and abolished conscripting young men into the army and Vietnam. I went off to university and lived off campus with some mates and we would often sing some of Paul Simon’s lyrics late at night when the mood was low.

Have a listen and see what memories come to your mind (if you’re of a similar age). If not what songs bring back your memories?


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Are you Humpty Dumpty waiting for a fall?

Quite often Principal’s can feel like Humpty Dumpty “just waiting for the fall”.

When you think of how many “clients” you serve (students, their parents and then the wider community) even a middle size school of 500 would add up to over 1,000 clients (including staff if you define a client as a person using the organisation). This number of clients makes it difficult at times to keep everyone moving in tune with the organisation’s goals.

Then, in Victoria at least, there are two reporting and accountability bodies for Principals, your employer (Department of Education and Training if you’re in the State Education System) and your local school board or council. It would be fair to say that these two bodies don’t always align in goals or actions so the principal as the CEO to the board and senior government officer is usually on the tightrope where its easy to fall.

Having over 20 years experience as a Principal I can say I had a few falls most of which can be bandaged with the help of colleagues, family and friends.

However when you are dealing with parents greatest hopes and deepest fears (their children) (or at times staff) it’s usually an emotionally charged decision and the damage from a fall can scar.


  • not being able to account for a child’s whereabouts when you are telephoned by the parent around 5.00 pm and the class roll hasn’t been marked after an excursion to the city,
  • or, picture a child wielding a knife or out of control in the classroom and the class teacher who is pinned near the blackboard needs your help to exit the child,
  • or, a child isn’t picked up from after school care and you have to ring the community police to arrange accommodation,
  • or, taking a parent to court (for a restraining order) for stalking you and your family,
  • or, confronting an angry parent in the school yard who has just abused the duty teacher and wants to get aggressive when you tell him the police are on the way,
  • or, you get rung up at night to be informed that one of your teachers has been attacked by her husband who later shot himself.

These incidents all happened (and more) and perhaps surprisingly they are not the incidents that cause the falls with the lasting scars. Stress Yes! A few sleepless nights and the odd bottle of wine – to be sure. These incidents are not covered in pre principalship training manuals, how could they be for yours will be different to mine but of one thing you can be certain of – they will happen.

So what incidents do cause falls that scar – well it’s generally those around specific emotions – or the capacity not to show emotions.

Let me deal with the second issue (that of not showing emotions). Despite “doing” the increasingly expected day-to-day management / leadership stuff of schools it’s having to hide one’s emotions when dealing with conflicts and quarrels that really tests us as humans beings. I can often recall going home to break open a scotch and yell “I’m mad as hell” at that but on the surface at school appear calm. The appearance of calmness generally settles the emotional tides at school. Then at night (too busy during the day) we process how to discuss that incident with the person or persons involved using facts gathered (yes its one of those tossing and turning sleepless nights again).

PS on this point: After having reading Dr Phil Riley’s latest report on Principal health and well-being I’m going to offer in my new consultancy a no agenda meeting (a key recommendation of Phil’s) for Principal’s where they can blow off the steam (in confidence) to an experienced and retired principal before or upon reaching home. More about that later on my business site: learning inquiries.com.au

Side fact: it has taken me almost 12 months since I retired to relearn how to sleep well again at night!

For me it was “betrayal” the silent, behind one’s back, sometimes publicly confronting acts and words that caused my greatest scar. Not that I could name this emotion then, you see we were doing the business of schooling at the time and also working on not showing emotions.

After much reflection I’m now writing a paper on this “betrayal” as I think others may identify with some or all of the surrounding details and hopefully learn to name key elements before it happens to them.

What I am interested in is starting discussions with school leaders on incidents that cause stress or falls or even scars in the hope that through sharing principals can get support. If you are interested send me an email (mark@learninginquiries.com.au)

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features of a wise leader

I was recently going through my email and found this from a close Scottish colleague.


  1. Holds unshakeable values which define their being;
  1. Translates their ‘way of thinking’ into the ‘way they do things’;
  1. Has moved beyond acquiring knowledge to ‘letting go’ of knowledge;
  1. Combines a vision of the future with a knowledge of the past;
  1. Understands and values their own human frailties;
  1. Sees the world with a ‘profound simplicity’;
  1. Travels without the burden of having to prove their wisdom;
  1. Balances issues towards the ‘common good’;
  1. Sees layers of connections when others see discrete issues;
  2. Engages their mind in union with their humanity.

This got me to reflecting on my own leadership past and future. For me its the connections between unshakeable values, valuing ones frailties and engaging mind with humanity that are most tested in times of great challenge.

I recall a meeting I had where I felt I had to challenge staff about believing our youth (in this case it was one class of youth). Some spoke about feeling afraid in the yard with them which was the antithesis of my experiences with these young people. I believe, in reflection, some of the staff were really afraid of what these young people might say about how they were felt they were being perceived, treated or mistreated, believed or not believed or ignored or listened to by some adults (teachers) in the organisation.

Some of these challenges were ultimately I believe exposing my leadership underbelly, so to speak, for I, the youth and the organisation needed staff belief in the hope our youth show and their active loyalty which for some proved too much.

With wisdom perhaps comes risk and a preparedness to experience hurt which is to be human.

I wonder how other people reflect on this list and their experiences?

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Student Reports: a case for change

This is a copy of a post I wrote on my company’s website

Well its November again and on the school calendar for teachers all over Australia is the preparation of the end of year student reports. Schools become stress centres for teachers.

I’m wanting to build a case for change to student reports as I’m not sure the hours teachers spend on reports and some of the hidden consequences are worth the information parents receive or think they receive.

Firstly the case based on hours:

According to a recent newspaper column teachers work around 53 hrs per week (about 22 contact hrs). This union claim from my experience becomes a certainty around student reporting time. Those hours are usually spread over 4 1/2 days during the working week and a long session one day over the weekend. Besides the student contact hours teachers are generally expected to attend 2 meetings per week (3-5 hrs), yard supervision (1 hr), extra curricula activities like sports, music and camps averaged over a week (2-3 hrs), parent meetings – not counting school councils (1-2 hrs) and finally classroom preparation and correction time varies (15-18 hrs). While these hours don’t always add up to 53 per week they do when you add student reports.

Primary teachers on average suggest it takes between 2-4 hrs per student report. If you have an average class size of 25 then it’s between 50 and 100 hrs over a 3 week block. The only way this task can be completed is if the class preparation and extra curricula activities are heavily reduced or indeed cut out while these reports are completed. I sometimes wonder if parents really understand the cost of this minimal classroom preparation and assessment period. I did when I saw some text-book, duplicated sheet work start to appear in classrooms instead of small group interventions and conferences where student feedback was at its best but hey who sees this cost.

Then there’s the case about the real parent information.

The student reports in their current format usually consist of a grading or mark (A-E) and some summative comments. The student mark is usually averaged over several smaller assessments with the teacher making a professional judgement. I think Dylan Wiliam says it better than me on the value or otherwise of marks:

On the topic of communicating student achievement, the academic said ‘we’ve actually basically lied to parents that the information we’re giving them is useful and meaningful … these grades that we give to students, really don’t tell parents anything at all’.

He recalled a conversation with one parent during his time as a mathematics teacher in London. ‘He was pushing me to tell him what “position” his child was in the class – his “rank” in the class. I resisted and resisted, and eventually I gave in and I said “okay, he’s in the top three, but it’s the worst class I’ve ever taught. So, now what do you think you know?”

‘The point is, that parents think As and Bs and Cs and Ds are meaningful, but what we should be asking the parents is: “Now, what do you think you know about your child now that I’ve told you he’s got an A?” And the answer is “nothing”, so I think there’s been a bit of dishonesty here, because we’ve pretended to parents that these grades are meaningful, and they’re really not.’

Teacher Magazine

I read with interest that one school Nossal High School (at least) has done away with marks or grades on student reports.

So now we are left with the summative comments. I suppose it doesn’t surprise many that most report systems have large comment banks which the teachers select from to describe student performance. Some of the comments in the bank just describe the tasks without analysing the performance. Parents are often over heard to say does the teacher really know my child.

Then there’s the teacher self-image here as well. Teachers want parents to think they have worked hard with their child so if they fill the page or section with comments to provide that impression. Despite word limits or section limits in the computerised reports I still struggled with teachers padding reports to give this impression.

So what’s the change?

I tried to flip the assessment periods in a school so that it was used to discover the next steps in learning for a child. The teacher, usually within a team, then developed the key goals for the next 5 months. These learning goals were shared with the student so it was transparent. Often these discussions were confirmations as the child shook their head and said “yer I know I don’t understand or can’t do that so that’s good”, sometimes the student even added to the goals with “can I then learn this then”.

These goals were shared with parents at interviews and on paper. Then for the next 5 months the teacher developed appropriate tasks and provided students with specific feedback on the learning intentions. Students in turn then asked many more questions.

Reports then were a summary of progress towards those specific goals – if achieved then celebrated with new goals to be set soon afterwards.

This then became transparent and meaningful for all. The cycle was then repeated for the second semester.

Now there were lost of twists and turns, challenges and setbacks in this change and it was a solution in progress. But for most it was an improvement and it took less teacher time to prepare so there were winners there as well.

If your interested to know more please contact me for a discussion.

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Resources by themselves are not sufficient to improve language learning in Victorian or for that matter Australian schools?

Once again students learning another language hits the newspaper headlines:

Interestingly it hits the headlines in the only state in Australia (Victoria) that mandates languages be taught in schools despite it being in the Australian curriculum.

So what’s the issue: insufficient teaching time per week which limits the effectiveness of language programs. There is no surprise there. The real question is why?

The answer I think is complex:

  • Purpose: what’s the purpose of learning another language when for most students they don’t speak it at home – therefore it must have future prospects? Well sure that’s obvious you say – so for Victorian and I dare suggest Australian students who live close to Asian countries that dominate our trade and economic interests which language?


It seems that’s happening in Victoria with traditional European languages now in the minority in Victorian primary schools although I would suggest it would be a different picture in lots of secondary schools that have stable workforces where its difficult to change language teachers.

At Elsternwick PS (EPS), my former school, the community choose Mandarin because of our countries closeness to Asia.

So what are the reasons

  • Competition : There is continuing competition for curriculum time with our crowded curriculum.  However I would suggest we can achieve the cultural aspects of learning another language when we integrate subjects with an Asia perspective. Again we did this to some extent at EPS with our inquiry focused units of learning that had historical or a technological or a civics streams but not to the recommended level (150 minutes a week). The graph below shows the average time in primary schools, which is somewhere around 58 minutes per week – short be 90 odd minutes. So why again?

language graphWell one of the obvious points is a shortage of government funding. There is a nominal amount set aside in Victorian locally managed public schools for language education and for EPS (a school of about 650 students with 26 classes) this was about $120,000 which is the equivalent of 1.2 experienced teachers with some teaching resources. This level of staff (1.2) equates to about one 60 minute language lesson per class with a few whole school cultural events across the year. So either additional government funding is needed to achieve this goal (another $150,000 in EPS’s case), or the school must reallocate funding from other programs or a combination of both.

Schools reallocating funds usually comes in one from three different decisions

  • increase student numbers in classes thereby reducing the number of classes
  • reduce the number of intervention teachers for students not reaching benchmarks in English and Mathematics
  • reduce the number of senior staff or administration officers for a self managing school thereby decreasing student and parent support services (e.g. cut parent newsletters, reduce parent meetings, online payments only, cut student well-being programs)

I can assure you none of these decisions would have been popular or in some cases beneficial to students needing additional support.

Well, as Principal of EPS, I was able to accumulate government money over several years by managing a changing workforce whilst still providing all of the above (low-class numbers, intervention teachers for Reading and Mathematics and student and parent services) but still didn’t manage to increase language time?

This leads me to a third point I felt we need to change a perceived mindset before could increase time spent learning a language :

  • A monolingual mindset: It’s been suggested by researchers from ACER that there is a perceived global dominance of English. When people immigrated to Australia over the last 100 years its expected that they speak and conduct their affairs in English and that a second language was really a choice people made – be it their native language or one they seek to learn because of self-interest. This idea of choice in many ways devalued the languages program a point many students were sensitive about. Language programs became a second tier subject “nice to do for while” but not at the same value of English, the global language.

I believe in reflection it was this mindset that I struck as principal when I tried to establish an immediate purpose for learning a language via student and teacher relationships with a sister school. In brief when you have ongoing dialogue with people in another country on shared curriculum projects of significance then learning a language becomes a necessity if we are to mutually achieve our shared goals. There is a whole process here of establishing a sister school and building relationships over time that build cultural understanding which I’m happy to share if there is some interest but the point I’m making here is that resources by themselves won’t change the time we spend learning a language in schools.

We had the Asian language (Mandarin), a growing purpose with sister school relationships, an emerging shared curriculum, students and teachers wanting to be immersed in in-country experiences and the resources to make some of that happen and the potential to increase the time spent learning a language but unless we are intentional about changing mindsets then the things as they are will continue for many years to come.


Posted in Assessment, China, Chinese Language, curriculum, Sister School | 1 Comment

Why become a teacher? part two – my story

Some people can pinpoint a single incident or person that answers this question – for me I need to tell a story as I came to my moral purpose quite late.

I went as a young 5-year-old to Corpus Christi, a Catholic Primary School in Glenroy, from 1960 to 1966. Glenroy in those days was changing from earlier days where fairly wealthy people built large homesteads to an expanding and fairly tough neighbourhood. My father built our house in the late 1950’s at the same time the Housing Commission of Victoria developed large areas of Glenroy North (about 1,700 housing commission homes for disadvantaged families). One resident of the housing commission homes in that era Leo Wilson wrote about some of the tough times back then when mums had to knit school jumpers and boys only had one pair of shoes that dads fixed on a Sunday afternoon.

Leo recalled the milkman delivering milk in his horse and cart – one of my brothers when he was 12 or so years old got a job helping deliver milk from the local dairy early in the morning.

I recall being called a “Mick”, which was a term used to slur Catholics, by the kids from the local state school just before you were punched in the guts. This happen regularly and I got to be a good runner in those days yelling “proddy dogs” back to them (a slur term for Protestants). The golden rule was never to caught walking home alone.

It wasn’t all bad for on holidays we would all build billy carts in our court and spend weeks racing and modifying them (the ball bearing wheels made a sound as you pushed quite fast along the concrete paths).

Friday afternoon’s at school were enjoyable particularly if you made the school football side. We proudly wore our red and yellow footy jumpers for the afternoon (we were like peacocks strutting around the school yard many years before John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever) and were coached by the parish priest Fr Poulsen.

Many years later in one of my university post-graduate courses I was challenged to reflect on my morale purpose. It was then that I recalled some of my woundings during my primary years.

I was made to read a reader (I know an oxymoron) in year one titled John and Betty by the nun that taught our grade. We were all scared of this nun for if we left out a word from the text or worse still couldn’t sound it out we were smacked on our hands. It was known years afterwards as the “smack and say” method of instruction. This seemed at odds with me for I enjoyed reading in bed (not “See John jump” text).

However it was two experiences in grade 6 that really stood out:

There were about 50 of us in my year 6 class with the desks in rows crammed from the back wall up to the platform where the teacher sat. We all faced the blackboard which usually contained the days work written out by Mrs Hassett, our teacher. Relief from this rigid learning was in the school yard or so I thought! It was during one lunch time where a bully named Shane stole my footy. Feeling somewhat scared of him I still gave chase. I did say I was fast – well I caught up to him only to be punched a few times with students yelling fight. The nun on yard duty dragged us both up to the principal to be strapped on the hand. I also had my prefect badge removed and felt angry at the injustice as he continued to snigger at me for weeks afterwards. He seemed quite accustomed to being strapped but I wasn’t and the pain never quite left me.

Corporal punishment was not banned in Victorian government schools for another 30 years as I was sadly to learn as a young teacher.

This incident was quickly followed by another far worse wounding of the heart. I had taken the year 7 entrance exam to gain entry to my father’s old school, Parade. The results were delivered to the school and the year 6 teacher stood at the front of the class and announced that I had failed to gain entry and I felt humiliated. Not content with that she soon afterwards walked down the narrow aisle between the rows of desks and stopped in front of me and pronounced that I really shouldn’t bother to sit any more entrance exams as I wasn’t smart enough and would only disappoint my parents even further. I remember hiding for hours after school too humiliated to tell my parents that I hadn’t got in.

Well I ended up going on to St Josephs in Pascoe Vale and in the hustle and bustle shelved those memories for many years.

It seemed to me as a young and then experienced teacher and later principal that we should learn to listen and understand one another forming trustworthy relationships and that our emotions played a significant role in learning. Yes there were some times I kept students in at lunch to complete their work (I thought that a natural consequence of not working hard enough during learning time) but I was never tempted to hurt someone to achieve my and much later I was to understand “our” goals. My imperatives were to have students as partners in learning, to use our emotional intelligence in forming trusting relationships and become assessment literate so that learning was an informed process not a judgemental one.

I never forgot the pleasures of “play time in the school yard” and still kick the footy with the kids in the yard.

I think the ideas of restorative justice / relational learning came easily to me rather than the crime and punishment dichotomy and similarly DataWise which uses the power of data to inform both teaching and learning.

The more I hear these stories the more I find the answers to this question quite personal yet strangely similar.

Posted in reflections, school, teacher efficacy, Teaching | 2 Comments

Why aren’t us parents seeing any benefit in smaller class sizes?

I have just responded to this post by a parent:

As a parent, the Bloomfield Public School system has sold smaller class sizes as part of their narrative. The experience of my two children has been a DECREASE in group interaction and all of the other good things that should be occurring in a classroom. Individual interaction is also on the decline.

Am I alone in this suboptimal experience?

As a Principal I was “sold” by teachers that smaller classes would achieve better results – reducing in the K-2 classes was also supported financially by the state. By reducing we mean K-2 classes from 25 to 19-20 and senior classes (3-6) from 29 wish to 25. This took a lot of resources (e.g. no special ed teacher, reducing other interventions for targeted small group support (2-4), reducing several budgets e.g. in external professional learning) and over a 5 year period didn’t produce significant academic improvements.

So I redirected some of these resources away from 2-6 grades into targeted instructional improvements that the data suggested we needed to make (e.g. spelling). The resources (increased professional learning, in class coaching provided, more teaching  resources and a new spelling program – Words their Way). Results went up both initially and over time. We measured both overall scores and students and group growth rates against state growth rates.

However to note that this wasn’t the only intervention occurring at that time (e.g. restorative practices to improve the relationships between teachers and students and students and students, targeted small group interventions in reading in year 1 and 2, professional learning in using data more formatively to adjust instruction and curriculum were just some of the other interventions). I really liked Elmore’s thinking that you need to change all 3 things (relationships, curriculum and instruction) at the same time to have an effect.

Parents saw results but I didn’t manage some of their expectations too well (e.g. why can’t you do this across all disciplines at the same time and tomorrow) but that’s another story.

PS in the spirit of being balanced I have also provided these links which explores the effect or otherwise of class size:

Class Size and Student Achievement: Research Review.

Class size

Hattie and Class Size

Posted in Instruction, Instructional Rounds, Leadership, parenting, professional learning, school structures, Teaching | 6 Comments