Reflections on New Learning and New Literacies

Last week I was off on a cycling tour along the Murray River on the NSW and Victorian border with my husband, Bruce, sister Wil and her husband, Garry. I had a great week but there was no way I was going to miss the last week of our New Learning and New Literacies course. I found an Internet cafe and managed to get in eventually.

I have loved this course for what I have learned, for the friendships and new connections and also for how it has further supported our work in the Lanyon Cluster of Schools. There have been so many positives: we are part of an online international learning community and made new friends from whom we have learned a great deal; the Lanyon High teachers, indeed all of the course participants, have developed expertise to lead the Learning by Design work and make it sustainable; we have also learned so much more about teaching and learning and assessment, and through our blogs and wikis and even virtual worlds, have reflected deeply about our practice; at times we have struggled with work life balance to get all assignments completed but we got there; we are beginning work with Quest Atlantis with our students; we now have a great documenting tool for Learning by Design; and we enjoyed it!

 So thanks Bill and Laura and all of my New Learning and New Literacies colleagues.


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Student Agency

As we have explored assessment for learning in the New Learning course, the importance of student agency in learning has again been emphasised and particularly how Learning how to Learn (LHTL), Assessment for Learning (A4L), Learning by Design, collaboration and the explicit teaching of literacy strategies contribute to it.

Teachers in the Lanyon Cluster of Schools have been using and Assessment for Learning (A4L ) approach in which learning intentions and success criteria are communicated to students in student-friendly language at the class level and at the individual level through A4L goals. Teachers have also used Criteria/Quality (CQ) rubrics in which the highest quality is communicated to students before they undertake a task and are used in ‘comment only’ feedback. These have ensured explicit feedback to students about their assessment to inform future learning.

By incorporating more student friendly language in assessment feedback, opportunities are being created for students to understand more about what they have to learn and in turn how to learn it. This supports LHTL which also builds student agency. LHTL involves students thinking about learning and moves the focus from students doing tasks and activities to understanding what they have learned, how they have learned it, and where to next. Paul Black, Robert McCormick, Mary James and David Pedder (2006) found that Learning How to Learn (LHTL) was an important component of A4L. They stated that LHTL has the potential to develop more student autonomy and also promote lifelong and lifewide learning which is acknowledged as being necessary in knowledge economies.

One way LHTL is developed is by the explicit teaching of literacy skills through the knowledge processes of Learning by Design, eg students analysing the grammatical choices of authors in “Analysing Functionally’ and then making choices to position audiences in their own writing in ‘Applying Appropriately or defining a reading strategy such as inferring in ‘Conceptualising by naming’ and practising in ‘Conceptualising by Theorising’ by drawing inferences based on visual and linguistic cues.

Teachers have also been designing Learning by Design reading placemats and using spelling journals and Cooperative Reading to explicitly teach reading and spelling strategies so students deliberately and consciously select strategies to enable them to read and spell successfully, eg paraphrasing and summarising in research, predicting and inferring in reading narratives, generalising patterns and using visual strategies in spelling etc. In this way, students are taking responsibility for their learning and therefore demonstrating agency. They are motivated to learn, are actively involved in their learning and are conscious of the strategies they use.

In documenting Learning by Design, the learner side of the learning element provides opportunities to share learning designs with students. Some teachers have used this to create a big book to share learning goals with the students while other teachers have created display boards which focus on a particular knowledge process, eg a notice board contains examples of students’ work achieved in ‘experiential’ learning while another noticeboard focus on ‘conceptual’ learning. Through this approach, students develop a metalanguage about their learning, a first step to understanding the learning process, and which in turn develops LHTL.

Collaboration is also essential in this agency. Through collaboration students are involved in discussion which enables them to think more deeply about what they have learned, how they have learned it and what the next steps in their learning are. In this way collaboration underpins LHTL and A4L.

A future direction is how we develop peer and self-assessment. As well as making assessment more manageable for teachers, peer and self assessment will promote metacognition, self-direction, and, collaboration through peer discussion. Agency also moves from the teacher to the students as the assessors and judges of quality. Technology will be very important to support this shift as it will enable students to share their work and provide feedback through supportive learning communities.

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Learning by Design and the Lanyon Cluster Becoming Asia Literate project

Last week a number of  teachers from Bonython Primary School, Gordon Primary School and Lanyon High School, who are involved in a national Becoming Asia Literate project, funded by the Asia Education Foundation, presented their work to the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) reference group.

The aim of the NALSSP program is to increase opportunities for students to become familiar with the languages and cultures of Australia’s key regional neighbours, namely China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea. The rationale of this program is that ‘Asian languages and studies will equip the students of today with the skills to excel in the careers of tomorrow in our increasingly globalised economy. A greater cultural understanding and the ability to engage with our regional neighbours in their own language will help to build a more productive and competitive nation. This is beneficial for our economy, community and individuals, creating more jobs and higher wages and overall better opportunities for all Australians.’ It is interesting that the dominant factor in this rationale is related to the economy!

In this project we developed a range of learning elements using the Learning by Design framework. They include Japanese cultural studies for kindergarten to year 2 and a historical study of Hiroshima for years 5-6;  in years 7-8 teachers developed learning elements on Chinese and Japanese masks in visual arts, shadow puppets in woodwork, and Asian food studies. Learning elements about the Vietnam War in years 9-10 history and a novel study of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie in year 9 English were also developed. These complemented learning elements developed for years 9 and 10 in 2009 on Chinese ancient history, the Indian Ocean Tsunami in geography and Japanese textiles.

Learning by Design was a great tool to develop our learning elements in this project. Through experiential learning students were exposed to enrichment activities, stories, literature, films, excursions and presentations related to their focus area. They could also draw on their prior knowledge of the topics. In conceptual learning, students developed deep  knowledge about Asia, including knowledge of Asian history, geography, society and culture. Analytical learning develops deep understanding and is essential in order to embed the conceptual knowledge. Through analytical learning students challenged stereotypes, examined a range of perspectives and viewpoints, and developed informed attitudes and values based on an appreciation of the diversity of  the people of Asian countries. In applied learning, activities were designed for students demonstrate their learner transformation.

The teachers were inspirational as they described their learning designs and told their stories of student learning. The NALSSP reference group members were suitably impressed and I felt very proud of the work our teachers and students in the Lanyon Cluster of Schools are achieving.

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Testing Culture

 A testing culture dominates school education in many western countries. Economic rationalism has demanded more accountability and this has impacted on schools.

So how has this happened in education? I believe the first stage was to undermine teacher judgement. School based assessments were seen as unreliable – you only have to ask employers about the drop in spelling standards and hark back to a past golden age when everyone could spell perfectly. This was attributed to underperforming teachers and modern methods of education which clearly are not as effective as those of days goneby.

So having created a crisis in education, politicians aided by the media, can ride in as knights on their white chargers to save the day (and win votes hopefully). The solution is – we need a test – in fact lots of tests.  The data for these tests can be turned into graphs and create league tables. Such data must be  more reliable and valid than teacher judgements. The standards movement in which standrards were developed to support teacher judgements are not enough – only a test will do!

Underperformance in tests did not necessarily mean more resources. In some countries, schools that underperformed were closed down – a problem in Alaska when the nearest school could then only be reached by helicopter! Interestingly it is generally in poorer communities that schools are closed down.

The effects of testing regimes has been to narrow the curriculum as teachers feel the pressure to teach the test. Initially with all this pressure schools might  improve their results but after only a couple of years, the results will more than likely level out, as it has in in countries such as England and the USA. Yet Australia  still wants to follow in their footsteps. Sample population testing as is practised in Finland is much more powerful in producing data about how schools are performing without narrowing the curriculum and putting so much pressure on students and teachers. It supports governments to allocate resources and form policy.

In Australia in seems we can only look forward to more tests and performance pay for teachers based on how their  students go in these tests. This will create even more inequality in society as the low performing schools become residualised and parents with economic capital send their students to richer private schools.

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Assessment and the Australian Elections

Well it’s the day after our federal elections and the very likely result is a hung parliament. If the Labour Government retains power we will continue with the naming and shaming of schools through the MySchools website and continuation of a funding scheme which directs extra funding to private schools instead of supporting our under-resourced government schools. If the Liberals win, we will have national tests every year, much more naming and shaming of schools on the MySchools website and a veryconservative approach to the Australian Curriculum which is currently being developed. Our teaching will become test driven and our curriculum will be narrowed. How depressing!


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Going into Second Life again

We had our second guided tour on the islands of Jokaydia in Second Life today. I think I enjoyed this trip more as seeing the Teachers without Borders space was inspiring. There was the exhibition of photographs of African children and it was as good as going to a gallery to view them. We then looked at an interactive presentation, Education Under Attack.

The material presented was based on a UNESCO report of attacks on students, teachers, teacher trade unionists and academics in many countries including Afghanistan, Burundi, India, Pakistan, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chad, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Nepal, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the  Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, the Philippines, the occupied Palestinian territory, Sri Lanka and Venezuela. The attacks included very disturbing stories of murders, abductions, rape and incidents of sexual violence resulting from abduction or attacks at schools or education facilities, or on the journey to or from them, eg throwing acid on the faces of girls going to school in Muslim countries or voluntary or forced recruitment of children from school, or en route to or from school, by armed groups or security forces for combat or forced labour.

So the exhibition is intended as a professional development opportunity for teachers on the issues;  for me it also provided learning about how school age students might use technology in powerful ways in virtual worlds. The information in the multimedia presentation included video clips (linked to YouTube), text based material with factual information and narratives, slideshows, images and a panel in which you could provide feedback. There was quite a lot of reading in the information panels so good ‘literacy’ moments too.

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Collaborating on The day the sky exploded learning element

Teachers at Gordon Primary School and Bonython Primary School in the Lanyon Cluster of Schools, Australia, recently developed a Learning by Design learning element for students in grades 5-6 (ages 10-12 years). This was an interesting collaboration as it really started out as two separate projects.


Firstly three teachers, Emma Ross, Les Longford and Shane Carpenter volunteered to participate in a national Becoming Asia Literate project.  This involved developing a learning element and participating in action research. Their learning element, Hirsohima – an empathetic look or The day the sky exploded, focuses on developing empathy and respect in students as they study the Japanese involvement in World War 2 and the effects of the atomic bomb on the Japanese people.  Japanese is studied by the students for an hour each week and the learning element is designed to develop a greater understanding of Japanese culture and ultimately develop a more positive attitude by the students towards learning Japanese. The action research is being documented on the Lanyon Cluster Teaching and Learning wiki.

A the same time as this learning element was being developed, teachers at Bonython Primary School, led by Robyn Kiddy, were developing Learning by Design placemats  which focused on reading.  These teachers were also participating in action research as part of the Lanyon Cluster Teaching and Learning projects. They developed a series of placemats, all focusing on different reading strategies. To support the Japanese teacher at Bonython, Robyn Kiddy and I developed a placemat based on the picture book, Photographs in the Mud by Diana Wolfer and Brian Harrison-Lever. Set on the Kokoda Trail in Papua-New Guinea in 1942, it tells a story from the point of view of two soldiers, Jack and Hoshi, who meet in battle and discover how much they have in common. Its main theme is the personal human tragedy of war for the soldiers and their families.

In our design we wanted to focus on the inferring reading strategy and also included other strategies such as connecting self to text, predicting and codebreaking. These were embedded into the learning design using strategies based on Cooperative Reading developed by Dr Glenda Raison. As the text  is a picture book we could focus on  both the visual and linguistic grammar of the text. This was highly engaging for the students as they could infer from the choice of colour, especially the soft pastel colours and the change in mood once the soldiers are injured. There are frames within frames to emphasise the importance of photographs for memories and for survival. Also the framing reflects how the characters become closer. In the linguistic text, the words used to describe the actions of the Japanese soldiers are very aggressive while the verbs to describe the actions of the Australian soldiers are not. The cumulative effects of these choices by the author subtly position the audience to be more positive towards the Australian soldiers.

The Japanese teacher at Bonython Primary School began teaching the placemat and commented how engaged her students were and how the placemat took away so much pressure in lesson planning. I also trialled the placemat with a couple of year 6 classes at Charles Conder Primary School and realised how powerful the text was. After talking to the Gordon Primary School teachers they decided that all of the year 4, 5 and 6 teachers would also teach it to complement the Hirsoshima work that the Japanese teacher was doing. At this stage we decided that it would be highly useful to add the placemat to the Hirsohima learning element.

Collaboration is a powerful way of developing a learning element, firstly in the creative design process and also in ensuring the documentation is completed to a high standard. Including purpose and teaching tips on the teacher side ensures the communication to teachers using the learning element is clear and detailed. The learning element provides so much more information than the placemat, making the design explicit, including objectives and assessment, and providing teaching tips to support implementation.

This learning element was taught to 16 classes in three Cluster primary schools so the effort in designing and documenting the learning element has paid off already and will be of value in future years. Further it has supported the high number of early career teachers in our schools by showing them how to address diversity, create student agency, focus on multimodality by explicitly teaching the grammar of texts, and ensure learner transformation.

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