There is no doubt that the ability to work in a group is a highly valuable skill that will be called upon in later life. How then do we best prepare students for this in a post school environment?

This idea was piqued recently with the intersection of two events. The first was a series of workshops looking at Visible Thinking, stemming out of Harvard’s Project Zero. Put simply, how do teachers know that content covered in class has been absorbed by students. The old concept of a teacher delivering a chalk-and-talk-class where you could hear the proverbial pin drop is a good example. While the content may have been covered and the teacher feels it all went well, how much has been taken in my students?

Photo by Susan Sermoneta

Photo by Susan Sermoneta

The second event was the marking of a Reflection assessment by Year 8 students of a group task that culminated in a class performance of a scene from a play. Having marked a similar task, a year earlier, the similarities in the responses were striking, despite the year’s gap between the two tasks.  The content covered was dynamically different – from a contemporary play in Year 7 to an excerpt from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this was reflected in the different ideas about the text and how to approach the task. However, the accounts of the processes of working in the groups were quite similar. This led to the thought; why not look to develop a hierarchy of group skills?

Students are put in groups from a young age. Socially, they seek out friendships from the first days of schooling, if not beforehand. The idea that you will be put into a group of or get yourselves into groups of X is commonplace. From here teachers often ask how the process is going, based on the task at hand of the shared goal or goals that the group has. Individuals may well be asked to reflect on how it felt working in a group, including what barriers were faced (individually or as a group), approaches that were used in an attempt to overcome the barrier, as well as how one felt about the experience looking back on the task.

But what is done about group skills beyond this? I have worked with students on Outward Bound courses where Bruce Tuckman‘s Stages of Group Development was in play. Here teams will go through a series of steps (Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing) as they work through a shared task. At the time, this approach seemed novel to the students, who often found amusement in being ‘stuck’ in the Storming stage as they vented their exasperation to the wild when a tent stubbornly refused to be assembled in the face of driving rain.

As an initial response this post seeks to posit this idea as a precursor to future discussion. Group skills are envisioned in a similar light to Tuckman’s work. This would see an element in group work where students are able to directly develop group skills and look to reflect on the process. Then, a critique of a variety of group approaches could be considered as part of a learning tool. The aim of a future post will be to explore and promote some group skill possibilities, along with ways of assessing their use. In the meantime, suggestions or experiences that have worked in the classroom are most welcome.

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The development in student-centred learning is certainly gaining pace in the last few years. Each day, further strategies utilising BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies are highlighted, classes are flipped (where students are able to view and review brief videos created by teachers at home) and the role of the teacher continues to be refined. Certainly, the concept of the teacher as the authoritative dispenser of information via chalk and talk is being challenged.

In light of this, what developments are there with the process of interviewing teachers for positions? Currently, it is not uncommon for prospective teachers to be asked to teach a lesson or take a class. It’s not something that I’ve had to do, but I’ve often wondered about this. Does it lead to the potential for a “crackerjack” lesson to be delivered by a candidate – perhaps the best that they can do? Or is it designed more to weed out those who might handle the interview itself successfully enough, but give little indication of the fact that they would be flounder if put in front of a more ‘colourful’ Year 9 class? Certainly it has probably had its value over time and, as a general litmus test, one can determine a degree of rapport (or not) between a teacher and a group of students.

So, do schools need to visit how they interview teachers? If we are looking at dynamic and innovative ways of interacting with students and delivering content, does this stand at odds with more traditional methods of demonstrating your classroom credentials? Perhaps the criteria need to be considered as part of the application process, looking at a wider range of skills such as:

  • examples of a teacher’s ICT skill base and how this directly correlates to classroom activities
  • a teacher’s ability to facilitate and mentor, rather than be the arbiter of instruction
  • a demonstration of a teacher’s connection to the need for lifelong learners in society (and with the ability to be taught by the students as well)
  • the place of content and creation in the classroom
  • the need to teach the value (or otherwise) of the ICT tools as part of the learning process

Would love to hear about “different” experiences in the selection process that you have witnessed or experienced.

I’m in the middle of reading George R.R. Martin’s (first thought… why the need for two ‘R’s!) Game of Thrones at the moment. I’ve seen to the end of the second season of the show and am hoping to get ahead of my reading in the novels before watching any more. My main reason stems from my reading of this first book – it reads very much like it views, as if the producers of the TV version decided that they would do a scene by scene replication of the book. As a result, I feel a bit like I did as a boy, reading the film ‘novelisations’ of the Star Wars series, such as The Empire Strikes Back, which I recall getting via my school’s Lucky Book Club affiliation, replete with glossy photos in the centre of the book. The book felt very convenient as it faithfully plodded through the action that we saw on screen. There wasn’t a lot of flavour… or imagination.

Not that I am suggesting that this is the case with Martin’s epic – it obviously predates the show. It’s just that I can’t really tell. I’m not reading it particularly quickly, but I find it hard to clear my head from the action that I have seen on screen, as I read. I’ve heard that the second series starts to deviate from the book and look forward to seeing the evidence of this when I get to the second book – and as mentioned, moving on to the third before I catch up on “that” season. It reminds me a little of my reading of the Harry Potter series. I had my ‘own’ Harry Potter in my imagination before the movies came along, but I can’t recall him now. He (and other characters) have been well and truly replaced by Daniel Radcliffe et al. I find it sad that I can’t get that imagination version back… and probably never will.

So back to the title of my post… I love literary page turners. Those books that you are almost apologetic about reading. In Australia (and perhaps more broadly internationally now) we have Matthew Reilly. 25 words or less for the uninitiated: super hero defies (multiple) deaths from super villains and overuse of exclamation points while solving international mysteries!!! (more or less)

The boys I have taught over the years have loved Reilly’s work and when asking my opinion of it, have been surprised by the fact that I haven’t jumped on board more enthusiastically. It is a certain guilty pleasure and I enjoy it every now and then, while I am consuming the work. But like eating the fairy floss/cotton candy (love the international use of alliteration to describe spun sugar!), one feels strangely unsatisfied (read ill) sometime after completing the work.

Not like some of those authors who present works that are more like a fine dining degustation dinner. Writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, or even the short stories of Alastair McLeod. You might not want to have this level of readership every day, but when you sit down, one can feel sated with the beauty of the words… how they are chosen and placed on the page, in a short period of time.

For now it is George and I am on page 461 of 780 (before we get to the House history stuff). So it is Friday night and, for now, I’m still at sideshow alley and the junk food abounds… and I’m happy to give in to it for the time being.20130816-213642.jpg

The school I teach at, as part of its 150 year anniversary celebrations, has been hosting our brother school from Tonga. This is an interesting story in itself, as this College was founded by the same “first” headmaster, only 3 years later, in 1866. 

We have 90 boys and staff staying with our boys and staff, as billets. It has been an inspiring and often humbling experience. Those we are hosting come from a situation of limited means, yet their spirit and ability to give makes us look like minnows by comparison. In our chapel on Sunday evening, we were blown away by the performances of their choir and brass band, respectively and together. At the time, our Headmaster made an astute observation; despite our financial and technological strength, we are the ones who receive the greater benefit from our mutual relationship. Why might this be surprising, when we aim to support them with educational and financial aid each year?

Simply, it amounts to the idea that those who have least to give, often have the most to offer and the greatest generosity to boot. From my perspective, it highlights the power of service. Another, former, headmaster of mine, took pains to explain to the students that to be a leader in a school does not equate as the one who gives all the orders. Instead, a true leader is demonstrating their ability and capacity to serve. This observation struck me at the time and came back into view with the current visit from our Tongan friends.

While it is commendable for our community to make donations that support charities, the greater recognition for us comes from when we give of our time. There are occasions when I feel that (and this is not meant to be a nasty thought by any means), it is simpler for us to make a monetary donation and, perhaps, in doing so, salve our conscience from larger concerns. By contrast, I have appreciated the accounts from our students and staff who, when visiting Tonga, have been met with a people who give up their own residences to house us, who stay up the whole night preparing banquets and cutting down the trees to ensure that there is sufficient firewood for the feast to take place. Their love of God, of community and generosity is a lesson to all at my school. I reiterate that it has been a humbling experience.

I sometimes get asked whether, being an English teacher means that I want students to be able to learn how to read and write (put a little simplistically). I tend to observe that, for me, I would rather that I encourage students to have the ability to actively question the world around them, than they have a set of rote learnt answers. Additionally, I would like my students, to have that wider world view – one that recognises the need of others and how best to further those aims. I hope that the lessons of this week will have a lasting effect, long after our Tongan brothers have returned to their homeland.

How many times, as a child, have we heard this phrase?

Illustration by Warwick Goble to Beauty and th...

Illustration by Warwick Goble to Beauty and the Beast: the heroine is the youngest daughter in her family. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I get you to think about what it means in your mind, like a Pavlovian response, you’d have your imagination firing off possibilities. Quite possibly incorporating images of Fairy Tales, Fantasy, stories set in an indeterminate past. Princes and princesses and simple moral codes. Quite possibly it suggests other or further ideas for you. It was only when my daughter was watching Play School on TV recently, when a presenter began a story with this well-worn phrase

Once upon a time

that I gave it closer scrutiny. And I realised that I, for one, had not really given much (any?) thought as to what this actually means. My own coding sees my mind shift straight away into the premise that I am about to be told a story, quite possibly with an authoritative voice and my own position as listener being that of (or similar to) a child. But thinking about this phrase more closely, it struck me as odd. It sounds like a point being placed on a timeline, when the event that you are about to hear takes place – surely this is not a particularly striking idea to put into a child’s mind? At worst it sounds too clinical – like some kind of science experiment, rather than a story involving flights of fancy and fantasy. Perhaps this is the reason that teachers soon steer students away from using this cliched start in their own writing.

A few years ago, I recall hearing an actor discussing his role as Richard in Shakespeare’s play Richard III. The opening lines will be familiar to many:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York;

What made this interview noteworthy was his observation that he (and I apologise for being unable to remember the actor’s name) had, for some weeks, been rehearsing these lines without actually understanding what they meant. My memory of the interview was that having admitted to this and saying that this was, it appeared, a not uncommon mistake, he did not go on to clarify what the two lines meant. This set me musing on them, and wondering whether it involved the use of double negatives, which often confused people at the best of times (the “I haven’t done nothing” kind of thing). My understanding of the line is that, from Richard’s perspective, he means the following: If it is the winter of your unhappiness, then are the times actually good for you (the opposite being the summer of your happiness, rather than the summer of your unhappiness, if that make’s sense). Thus the “glorious summer” is a real downer for Richard – who revels when the times are bad, making the most of his own political run when chaos reigns.

What other phrases do we take at face value, rather than giving them the necessary scrutiny?

Starting out as a new teacher, you might well be asked to take on a Year 12 (or senior) class. On the basis that you have the necessary class skills in hand and know your curriculum, what might be the first fly in the ointment for your new teaching career?

English: A special education teacher assists o...

Teacher skills often extend beyond the class room (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

The chances are, you might well have a parent/teacher evening, or a set of reports to complete before the end of Term 1. Yet, as far as I can tell, most university training does not focus on either of these skills.
In my case, it was comparatively unremarkable. I was not quite 23 and the oldest student was already 18. Admittedly, it was nearly 20 years ago and the night went smoothly enough. Apart from the drunk parent and the couple going through an acrimonious divorce that played out before me. Nothing directed at me personally, but this isn’t really the issue. It was more the sense that I felt like I was winging it, on some sense of what was expected.
Talking to colleagues recently, it seems little has changed. I acknowledge that my survey is hardly extensive. However, it does take in experience from the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, over the course of the last decade in particular. Even now, I have a prac student about to start an internship – no experience of parent/teacher nights or reports has been provided by the university. Perhaps fortuitously, she will be able to sit in on our scheduled night, and so will gain some experience before going live as a newly employed teacher, on her own.

With reports, it might be a little easier. The chance to look at a set of earlier reports from a colleague, or to have them looked over beforehand certainly exists. But why not take it back a step and look at what reporting ought to entail? A clear understanding of the student, certainly, but what beyond this? Results? Pedagogy? Curriculum goals? What is best avoided?

As for the parent/teacher interview, why not have a practice run, in addition to any school practicum that a trainee teacher might undertake. Having a number of scenario interviews, with unknown adults, provides scope for direction and reflection. Medical students undergo a variation of this in order to both direct their diagnostic skills and ‘bedside’ manner. Surely this is as pertinent in a

I recognise the need for universities to adapt to new teaching methodologies in light of the changing world of ICT. However, these basic skills seem to have been overlooked in the past and continue to do so in the present. Despite other developments, such as the changing realm of ICT, surely teachers will need to be able to write reports and meet with parents for the foreseeable future.

If you have seen programs where these skills are incorporated, I would love to hear about it.

Well, someone in the next day will be – it could be you and this post might well tip the scale over – currently my blog sits on a modest 1994 views (I know, distinctly small fry for many). I would love to be able to let you know if you were my 2000th viewer. Maybe if I’m vigilant, I’ll be able to tell the country that you’re from. If the first six viewers all ‘liked’ this post, I could tell that number six would be the one. Maybe I could even do a feature on the person receiving that milestone…

English: The Grand Prize for the winner of a g...

A good year thus far… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ironically, the one year anniversary of my writing – NOT my joining WordPress, which took place seven months before as part of a work ICT activity – is also coming up on June 25th. This was a post on students doing ‘TED Junior’ talks. It took me that time to work out what I was going to write about (and feel confident to press that ‘Publish’ button), one reflecting my work and ideas in Education, which, as you might expect, has also undergone some changes in that year.

Back to my title – how many times have you been the “999,999” visitor (or one millionth)? In thinking about this post, I reckon I’ve won about 50 of these things (and have of course, clicked on none of the cheery, cheesy banners when they’ve popped up). I even typed the phrase into Google and got all sorts of discussion about the possible scams and identity compromising consequences of clicking on these spots.

So anyway, to give you something in the same vein, here are some stats reflecting your relative chances of a number of events occurring – just to give you pause for thought. I’ve made them ‘Australia’ based, to reflect some of the idiosyncrasies of my country:

Chance of winning the big division prize in Lotto – 1 in 45 million

Chance of being killed by a shark –  1 in 292, 525 (chance of drowning at the Australian beach, by comparison, 1 in 3,362)

Chance of being struck by lightning – 1 in 1.6 million

Chance of dying in a car accident – 1 in 12, 500

Chance of winning anything by being the “Xth” person to visit a site – nil?

But, getting away from the darker side, it has been a great year thus far. I’ve learned so much and thank you all for popping by, whether this be a first time, or a return trip. Looking forward to even more in the coming twelve months. I’ll keep you posted on the 200th viewer… if I can 😉