Friday, 13 May 2016

Primary & Secondary Sources

Something you often hear, these days, is that we want our students to think like a writer, or a scientist, a mathematician, or even a historian.  The goal is to have students learn the specific cognitive skills of each discipline and the metacognition to apply them successfully. 

It's a big goal, but I don't think it's necessarily a new one. Perhaps what's new is the explicit inclusion of the specific skills and actions in some subject areas of the Australian curriculum - like history for example. One of the tricky parts of thinking like a historian is coming to grips with how we learn about the past. 

Recently I've been talking to one of my own children about his sources of information for a research project in which he's comparing Australia's education system of the 1900's and now. He's been instructed that his final essay must make use of at least one primary and one secondary source, which presupposes that he knows the difference. At his age (14) I didn't. He does.  (I'm not sure he knows why the distinction is important though.) 

I introduced the idea of primary and secondary sources to a class of year 3/4s a few years back by presenting a collection of sources and asking them what they noticed.  There were some hilarious observations but more importantly a couple of students pointed out the fact that some of the sources were "records made by people who were there" and some were "second hand information".  Such a simple distinction between primary and secondary sources!

More recently, with a group of year 5/6s, (knowing that two days earlier they had started learning about this) I asked the question: "what makes a source primary or secondary?"  The general consensus was that a primary source needed to be original, but a secondary source was a copy.  I read the South Australian Certificate of Education's definition, and we chatted about the differences between it and their definition. Then I told them a story. 

Pages 92-93 of Anne Frank's original diary.
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 bHeather Cowper.
I talked about a girl who, during WWII lived, for a time, with her family hidden away in an attic to avoid being rounded up by Hitler's army.  And then I explained that after the war, her diary had been published.  I mentioned that there was a copy in their school library, and that many of their parents had probably read it while they were at high school. "Is this a primary or secondary source", I asked. 

Voting with their feet, the students positioned themselves along a continuum: primary through to secondary. After conferring with people close to them, the students explained their position. Some asked questions about whether the diary had been edited prior to publishing, and moved upon hearing that it was a true record of Anne's thoughts. Others held fast to the fact that there could only ever be one original so any copies we might read must be secondary sources. Still others made the connection that whilst Anne was able to be witness to her own experience, it was a limited perspective so should be understood with that in mind. Every time someone spoke, there was movement.  Eventually, with most of the class in the primary camp, I talked through my thinking and invited the secondary hold outs to come and talk to me further.

The distinction between primary and secondary sources is an important one and brings up questions of privilege, perspective, contestability and significance (to name just a few). Plus, teaching about it, means I have a great excuse reason to spend time reading about history, which pleases me immensely! #imsuchanerd #proudofit

Incidentally, my son is using an interview with me as one of his primary sources for his project. I'm not sure how I feel about that: whilst my experience with the current educational system would definitely make my interview a primary source, but I'm not quite old enough to be one for the 1900's! 

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers:
Standard 1 Know the students and how they learn
Standard 2 Know the content and how to teach it

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

I'll be the judge of that...

A photo posted by Markeeta Roe-Phillips (@markeetarp) on

Last night I made my debut as a debating adjudicator for Debating SA. Wow! My head is still spinning. I learnt SO much about debating, about giving feedback and about myself.

 I adjudicated three debates: a year 6/7 debate 'that single sex schools are the best', a year 9 debate 'that traffic fines should be based on income' and a year 8 debate 'that there should be a sugar tax'.   The students' debating experience level ranged from a couple of years to sharing the debut spotlight with me. Without exception, I was impressed by them. Some presented with the clear advantage of past coaching, others were obviously green but equally obviously determined and committed to learn. Some showed a sangfroid well beyond their years, others pushed through the nerves of their first truly public speaking engagement.  What a group!

 The challenges of the evening for me were many and varied. Our first debate got off to a late start because of some missing equipment and forms. Had I  - or any of the debaters - been more experienced this would have been noticed and resolved earlier. Meh. We coped.

The actual adjudication process is both straight forward and quite complex: lots of balls to juggle, with each new speaker adding another type and size ball. Taking careful note of each speaker's arguments (and rebuttals), presentation and debate structure is vital, but actually not very easy. People, and in particular children, speak really fast! Pulling out the salient points and matching them with the criteria against which they're being judged is not dissimilar to assessing students' oral presentations in the classroom in many ways. Fortunately Debating SA provides a comprehensive rubric against which to score each speaker which certainly helped.

Matching each speaker's rebuttals off against their opponent's arguments is, I'm hoping, something that gets easier (and faster) with time. One of the other areas I predicted would be challenging was recognising (and naming) the difference fallacies of argument and rebuttal. I've never debated so whilst some of these fallacies are part of our everyday vernacular many are new to me. Being the nerd I am, and knowing how I learn, I created online flashcards.

Please feel free to use my Quizlet 'study sets' with your students if debating and flashcards are your/their kinda thing..

I found that I was fine at recognising and naming the fallacies in my notes, but struggled to use that knowledge in my feedback to the students. I need to work on that.  Having said that, I received feedback from a number of parents that the feedback I gave was balanced and constructive. I used a template to record my feedback before I gave it so that I could make sure I used a sandwich approach: positive, something really specific to work on, positive. I also made sure, over the team, to include a good range of argument, rebuttal, presentation, structure feedback.  And I made special efforts to build up the students who stood up, had a bit of a freak out and then ploughed on. The second they realised that I was congratulating them and wasn't going to reprimand them their whole body language changed.  It was a very real reminder of the value of personal, specific, timely feedback. #highlight

I've got some way before I'll be confident at this, but that's OK. I'm learning, developing and growing. And having fun! That's the way I want my students to feel about learning, so I'm taking careful note.

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers:
Standard 6 Engage in professional learning

Monday, 9 May 2016

I'll take my wins where I can get them!

Sometimes, when you least expect it, you have a real win. The other day I was in a year 1/2 classroom for 40 minutes. If I'm honest it was such a flying visit I can't remember a single child's name (actually, that's a lie: there's one and I'm sure you can imagine why) but it was a fantastic visit.  (And it was in front of a pre-service teacher which adds to the win as far as I'm concerned! Another strategy for her to take away from her experience!)

I broke the class into groups of four (ordinarily I'd let them do this themselves, but I didn't know them, they didn't know me and I only had 40 minutes) and told them that the activity we were going to do was actually designed for an older class but that I was pretty sure they'd do a good job. Nothing like ramping expectations!!!

I explained that one person from each group was going to come to the front of the room and study an image for 30 seconds while the other members waited silently. This first person would then return to the group and start drawing what they remembered while another person came up and looked for 30 seconds. Rinse and repeat until all four members have contributed to the drawing. At this point I gave them 30 seconds to discuss their drawing as a group and make changes if they wanted to. Then they chose one last person to come and have one last look before they made any last minute changes.  

Keep in mind that this whole process was silent except for the 30 seconds of small group discussion.

Oh. My. Goodness.  The pre-service teacher and I were amazed.  Have a look at the source image and then the copies:

Year 1/2 Solar System Memory Team Copies by Markeeta Roe-Phillips.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The concentration and determination shown by these children was incredible and our discussion afterwards surprised me. I asked them to share with a partner what strategies they used to get the image into their brain and then out again, and then those partners shared with another pair and again with the group. The responses included:

  • I paid close attention to the things on the page and tried to remember them like photos in my head.
  • I have a book about space at home so I already knew the names so I just had to remember the shapes.
  • I knew we were drawing space because I was the last person so I already knew what I was looking at so I was just looking for things on the sheet that we didn't have on ours.
  • I just tried to remember it, I don't know how I did that.
So this prompted a discussion about prior knowledge. A number of children thought that using prior knowledge was cheating! I reassured them that it wasn't cheating, in fact it was something that good learners and thinkers use a lot to help them learn, understand and remember new things.  Lots of darling little ooohs and aaahs! 

We talked a lot about memory and different strategies to help us remember things. And then I congratulated them for having a great metacognitive conversation. "A great meta-what Mrs RP?" Got 'em, hook, line and sinker!  So we talked about how good thinkers and learners also think about how they think and learn, then quickly transitioned into a quick collaborative narrative building session. Oh boy. This teacher's lil' nerdy brain was doing a happy dance for  quite some time afterwards.

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers:
Standard 1 Know the students and how they learn
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning

More than Just Cyber Safety: Tackling the Social and Ethical Protocols of the ICT General Capability

The material is licensed by ACARA under CC BY 4.0.
I need to start this post with a quick introduction to the Australian curriculum general capabilities for my readers who aren't based in Australia or are otherwise unfamiliar with - what many Australian teachers call them - the gen caps.  Please think of them as one of the ways our curriculum describes the knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions that will enable our young people to "live and work successfully in the twenty-first century" (ACARA, 2015). There are seven general capabilities:

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Information and communication technology (ICT) capability
  • Creative and critical thinking
  • Personal and social capability
  • Ethical understanding.
  • Intercultural understanding
The general capabilities are, perhaps, some of the more ignored parts of the AC.  Whilst the curriculum documents do, in fact, provide learning continuum and explicit cross-curricular links some of the gen caps tend to be left in the too hard basket, or ignored all together.   Clearly these options aren't acceptable and regardless of what we think of the AC, it is our mandated curriculum so we have a responsibility to teach it ALL. 

Wow, that started to get a little preachie-preachie didn't it? Sorry about that! I get a little fired up because it frustrates me when I see teachers choosing to ignore one or more of the gen caps because they, personally, aren't confident or competent with the concepts.  Step up people, or step out.

And again! #sorrynotsorry
The material is licensed by ACARA under CC BY 4.0.
Back to the actual point of this post...

The first professional development session I attended in the last school holidays was run by Teacher Technologies and focussed on parts of the ICT general capability of the Australian Curriculum, specifically the social and ethical protocols and practices.

There were a couple of recurring themes throughout the day. One was the idea that we, as teachers, have a responsibility to model social and ethical behavioural choices for our students. (And not just when using ICT I might add!) This isn't a new idea but it's certainly an important one to consider. Think about the example we set when we - and I'm not saying that I, or you, do or don't do this - download an YouTube clip to use in class. Sure, we can justify it under the 'educational use' umbrella but do our students know that?  Do we explicitly explain to them what we're doing? Do our students know that they can't do the same thing? How would they know? And if, after we've downloaded a clip, we store it on our hard drive for next year is it still OK?

Another example are the images that we put in our presentations, or assignment sheets. I don't know about you, but I take great pleasure in finding the perfect image and will openly admit that I don't always do the right thing. And so the example I set is to use whatever image I like regardless of ownership. I am slowly getting better though. Actually, you know how ex-smokers are the worst kind of non-smokers in terms of telling people to not do it? (And with good reason! High five if you're an ex-smoker!) Well, I'm that person in my  house now, with creative commons images: I'm pretty sure my husband is going to take away my internet access if I ever again look at something he's done with an arched eyebrow and comment "that doesn't look like a creative commons image to me".

Yesterday one of my own children approached me with a question about referencing a podcast using the Harvard system. After I quit shaking (because I'm an APA girl through and through) I pointed him in the direction of some websites that I've found helpful in attributing my sources recently.  And it dawned on me what had just happened. My 14 year old, who listens to The Naked Scientists podcast like I listened to the Top 40 at his age, was using an idea he'd heard in a podcast to help build his argument in an essay on parallel universes, black holes, space. He knew he needed to attribute those ideas appropriately. Yay! Somewhere along the line, whether at home or at school, this kiddo got it! He understands intellectual property.  I did, of course, wonder whether he'd picked it up from good modelling (ahem!) or if it had beeen explicitly taught, which brings me to the other recurring theme.

Whilst we must model social and ethical protocols and behaviours when using ICT it is just as important that we explicitly teach them. It would be lovely for young people to pick up on why it's not a good idea to click on every *enter now* button through osmosis, but it's not overly likely. As a teacher, I use a range of strategies to keep any personal information I keep (digitally)about my students secure. (And securely destroy the files when appropriate.) This isn't something I can model to my students though, it's the kind of thing that needs to be explicitly taught in developmentally appropriate ways right across the primary and secondary years of schooling. The ICT gen cap learning continuum is very detailed about when and what students need to learn.

I could write about the importance and value of this component of this gen cap all day because it's something that is of increasing importance to everyone. As you can imagine, I was tweeting all day. I'm sharing Selena Woodward's Storify today. Enjoy. (As you scroll through, you'll notice that we were a bit spoilt for morning tea! I think there were about 10 of us there...)

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...

Standard 2 Know the content and how to teach it
Standard 4 Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments
Standard 6 Engage in professional learning
Standard 7 Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community

ACARA. (2015). General capabilities: introduction. Retrieved from

Friday, 6 May 2016


Anyone who's known me over the last couple of year has probably noticed my habit of spending at least a couple of days of each school holidays in professional development sessions. So, whilst I'm not actually in a classroom this year I still found myself booking in a couple of days' training in the recent holidays. (Because studying for a M.Ed full time isn't professional development? Yeah, I noticed that bit of flawed logic too.)

The first PD session of the holidays was entitled "More than Just Cyber Safety: Tackling the Social and Ethical Protocols of the ICT General Capability". Great day, and I will blog about it (update: you can read about it here). First, I want to talk about the other one, which was a Reflect Growth session focussed on planning, because I am a self-confessed planning nerd! I'm sure I've said it before but I'll say it again: I love planning!

We started the day building with Selena Woodward very ably helping us to build a shared understanding of the need for long (year), medium (unit) and short (lesson) term plans. We pulled apart a battery of questions we can - and probably should - be asking ourselves during our planning processes and tried to work out where in the process they fit. It was fascinating to hear different educators describe how they use the questions at different stages of planning.

Of course, it wasn't long before -  as things do in Australia whenever a group of educators converges - the discussion moved to how the Australian Curriculum (AC) has had an impact.   My opinion (and take this with a pinch of salt because whilst I trained with the former curriculum, I've only ever taught with the AC) is that without the need to think about content our attention can be where it needs to be: on pedagogy. (Which means I like the AC.)  The Twitter back channel was alive at this point talking about the need for planning to be responsive to our students' needs. Oh boy, was I excited to hear someone say that! I worry sometimes when I hear educators talk about their plans as though they are set in stone... What if the kiddos have different needs than the plans cover?

The rest of the day was divided into long, medium and short term planning discussions. (And a few mini learning activities designed to jog some thinking about new teaching strategies - thank you Selena!) Each discussion started with a speaker from a 'different walk of life' (me for medium term!) to encourage divergent thinking.

Our first speaker was Rebecca Wells who startled me into thinking about the role leadership can, and should, play in my long term planning. She suggested that a leadership team has a responsibility to support innovative planning and teaching with appropriate resources, and with connections to community. I LOVE this idea.  My mind went off on a little tangent here thinking about different ways of having ongoing meaningful community engagement in classroom. (Stay tuned because I feel a post about that bubbling away beneath the surface.)

My talk started... No... I'm not going to describe it all. You can watch the video if you are particularly keen, but suffice to say that I described planning in terms of maps and positioned medium term planning that way.  I didn't share anything that was likely to start off any educational revolutions but rather that medium term planning is where the magic happens (for me). It's where I get to build a structure into which I can ensure I meet all of the (sometimes conflicting) needs of my individual students, the curriculum and whoever is pulling on my at that point.

Markeeta Roe Phillips on Planning - Like a Map :) from Selena Woodward on Vimeo.

Our last, but by no means least, speaker was Lynda Rivett who shared a plethora of personal experience using TfEL tools in creative ways. It was a good prompt to me: I know that TfEL has a mountain of resources sitting there waiting to be used but I tend to stick to the ones I'm most familiar with and have on hand. I need to block out a few hours in my calendar and really delve into what's available.  Why reinvent the wheel when TfEL already has a whole tyre yard full of them waiting to be used?

I have so many powerful 'takeaways' from this day:
  •  I'm reminded of the power in good planning:
    • Power to effect strong learning; 
    • Power for cross-curricular syntegration; 
    • Power for collegiate sharing; 
    • Power in achieving balance; 
    • Power because I love the art/science of it!  
  • I sound like a small child when I speak; I think I need to work on my vocal patterns.
  • There is no right way to plan, but there are lots of dodgy ways. I'm comfortable with elements of my planning tools, but think I should use this time out of the classroom to hone and tighten them.
All of this discussion culminated in Selena throwing down Reflect Growth's next Metateacher Challenge which is, this term, a question: Which part of the planning process has the greatest impact on a student's growth?  I already have a fairly strong opinion but am keen to hear other views. Please share yours in the comments. 

On a side note: if you're on Twitter, I highly recommend you check out #reflectgrowth for an interesting stream of thoughts, ideas and sharing from educators interested in developing and improving their practice.  I'm a bit of a mad tweeter on days like this one, so have created a Storify of just some of the tweets from our session. 

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know the students and how they learn
Standard 2 Know the content and how to teach it
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
Standard 6 Engage in professional learning
Standard 7 Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community