Flipping the Classroom. My Journey to Traditional Teaching.

I read many articles, posts and tweets that are based on the assumption that a teacher-centred classroom is simply a model for disempowering students and giving them minimal ownership in their learning space. This is mostly considered a ‘given’, a fact if you will and not something that needs to be discussed in any shape or form. For educators who believe this, the mantra might be, “That’s always the way we’ve thought about it”. In this post I will briefly outline my evolution from so-called progressive to so-called traditional educator. (If you are not worried about the labels that’s fine with me. I say so-called because the lines are blurred but I think we need some framework). Lets bounce!

When I started teaching 16 odd years ago I had only been taught a decidedly progressive mode of teaching. During my teacher training it was considered heresy to praise any form of traditional teaching, and we sat around in tutorials chuckling about how horrific the ‘old’ ways were. How the traditional teachers sucked the life out of children and their amazing talents. (We did a Sir Ken before Sir Ken. If only his appallingly flawed seminal Ted talk had come out earlier. Oh how we would have bowed and scraped to him and thrust hate-filled daggers into the hearts of those hopelessly misguided traditionalists. They deserved nothing less). It was indeed a progressive mantra at all costs, although I privately queried why it was all so cut and dried. But I quickly moved on, I was going to be a great teacher damn it!

As soon as I started teaching I followed what I had been taught religiously. I was the very model of the progressive student-centred teacher. By the time Sir Ken’s awe-inspiring 2006 Ted Talk arrived cracks were appearing, but I papered over them and felt dutifully inspired. Onwards and sideways I forged, all the while becoming evermore concerned about my teaching. I was frequently lauded with praise by administration, parents and most of all students. This made me feel good but I felt strangely empty, and most of all disappointed that some students were entering my class with poor basic literacy and numeracy skills and leaving at the end of the year with the same. Yes there was improvement, but I knew I could do better. We did all the right things. We covered the curriculum top to bottom, we had collaborative group work, we had discovery learning and I felt wonderful being given the go ahead to do ‘Genius Hour’ on Fridays. The students took control of their learning and some ended up producing some amazing work. I started to think that maybe I was a bad teacher doing progressive teaching poorly.

Around 5 years ago I started to change tack. By this time many hours of research and soul-searching encouraged me to challenge the status quo and quietly run a more teacher-centred classroom. I made the decision to have the whole thing completely flipped by 2015. (Yes, I flipped the classroom although not as you know it). Last year was my most enjoyable and professionally satisfying of my career. This doesn’t and isn’t meant to prove anything other than I believe I became a better teacher.

I now run a decidedly teacher-centred classroom. I control everything. I decide what we are going to do and when we are going to do it. I decide when I will be speaking and when the students will be speaking. I decide the classroom rules and I set the consequences which are very clear and applied dispassionately and consistently*.   There are warnings and timeouts and no discussion with students who have disrupted the learning. (If a student is unsure how they have broken a class rule I discuss it with them alone during a break. I think that is more respectful and they don’t have the right to interrupt the learning of others while we chat about what happened). There is none of those ridiculous ‘reflection sheets’ where students write down what the teacher wants to read, and not actually what they are thinking. I don’t think you can force someone to reflect on his or her actions. They either want to or they don’t. Students on timeout are expected to keep working.

There are no prizes for students doing what they are expected to do. In fact there are no prizes period. I try like all good teachers to make my praise very explicit. I want the students to know that when I give praise I really mean it. It’s definitely not ‘every child wins a prize’. It’s a work in progress.

The learning is very much an, I do, we do, you do model. I explicitly teach and model what new concepts I want the students to learn. If I’m honest I am the centre of the classroom, nearly everything revolves around me. It is not a democracy. I call the shots. If there is any discovery learning, it is pretty much mandated what you will discover. I do use Minecraft and coding software in the classroom because I believe they are powerful tools for teachers to model what they want the students to know, and for students to demonstrate what they do know. I explain to parents it’s not a free for all by any means. The students are still blogging to an ‘authentic audience,’ although with Facebook, Instagram and Kick etc being used at home, that’s where the real authenticity lies because the students choose their audience. It is a very fluid arrangement because what may be considered a good audience one day is out the door the next. Have some students got time to be blogging at school if they still haven’t mastered basic literacy skills? Am I wasting time and letting them down?

I wont keep rambling but I have been asking myself some confronting questions in the last few years. If students have been leaving my classroom at the end of the year with gaps in their literacy and numeracy foundations, without some good basic knowledge in science, geography and history. If they are exiting without a much-improved vocabulary to express themselves, then they don’t have access to what students with strengths in these areas have. We all know that, but I have come to the conclusion that I desperately need to do more explicit instruction in class. I can’t count the number of times High School teachers have told me that many in their classes can’t read, write or spell, or even add to the required standard to access their curriculum. They are set up to fail. Maybe the 10 years of discovery learning hasn’t worked for many. Maybe we can leave the discovering learning until after they have a great mastery of the foundations. If we can get that right, they will discover so much more.

As a final note I’m guessing that people may feel I am creating a compliant class but not necessarily an engaged one. I believe engagement is directly related to the teacher’s relationships with the students much more so than what you are actually doing.   I’m not a great teacher, but I’m getting better every day. I wish I had ‘flipped’ my classroom much earlier.

*children with a disability often work under a personalized behavior plan.

 

If you have read this far, thank you and well done.

MJ

@seminyaksunset

 

 

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Robot Bricklayers

I often read these days that adults shouldn’t ask what children want they to be when they grow up. Instead it should be rephrased something along the lines of “What problems do you want to solve?” The idea is that all sorts of jobs will be disappearing as robots and advanced technologies take centre stage in the near future, so we need to cover our bases. What might that look like in the classroom? Here is a short and perhaps unreliable account of a recent interaction in class. Lets bounce!

“Mr J, I want to be a bricklayer like my dad when I grow up, it’s a cool job!”

Mr J’s response was measured, “Ahh, okay Delvina, but instead of saying what you would like to be when you grow up, I would rather you think of some problems in the world that you would like to solve.”

Delvina was slightly confused. “What do you mean, I want to be a bricklayer?”

“Yes I understand”, replied Mr J, “But, ahh, well yes I suppose, lets run with this, what problems do bricklayers solve?”

Delvina’s reply was confident and assured, “They help build houses, and people need houses right?”

Mr J’s eyes were sparkling now as he broke into a broad grin. “Absolutely, and there is a housing shortage in Sydney at the moment”.

Delvina knew she was on the right track, “Well that’s the problem I want to help solve when I grow up, people will need me to help solve their house problems”. She gushed with the surety of a student who knew she had just pleased her teacher.

“Actually”, said Mr J rather despondently, “Latest research suggests we are unlikely to need bricklayers in the near future”.

Delvina was stunned, “That kinda sucks!”
“Yeh true”, replied My J shrugging his shoulders, “But what are you going to do?”

 

If you have read this far, thank you and well done.

MJ

@seminyaksunset

 

 

High Expectations: A Personal Journey

Originally this post was going to be about something else but I have been inspired to change tack after reading a quality post by Jon Andrews @Obi_Jon_ on teacher agency. I wanted to talk about the value of having high expectations for students by reflecting on my schooling and my journey to becoming a teacher. Let’s bounce!

People often talk about everybody having that one teacher at school that really took the time to get to know them, and/or inspired them in their schooling journey. I didn’t. In fact I have no recollection at all of any teachers names or even faces from primary school. Granted that was along time ago but you would think there would be something. I live 10 minutes drive from my former primary school and even visiting triggers nothing. That might say more about me than the teachers from that era, I’m not sure. (I do remember that I was a ‘Milk Monitor’, which meant I got to drink my daily enforced ration of 300mls of milk almost cold. If you weren’t a monitor you had to wait until the designated time when you tried to drink it warm without vomiting).

I do have some recollections of high school, and there are around four or five teachers whose names I know and I can picture them, although none had any positive impact that I can recall. I do remember a very gifted artist impersonating a teacher and pretending that no one was aware he sipped whiskey all day. I thought his drawings were amazing, but he never spoke to me directly.

What I do clearly remember was that the teachers had very low expectations for me. There was always this pervasive, ubiquitous understanding that I wasn’t worth worrying about too much. I was frequently in trouble and did appallingly on all my assessments. Oddly, the school had a very strict policy on behavior which was ruthlessly enforced with corporal punishment, but seemingly very relaxed standards toward academic achievement. I was never spoken to about improving my results, my parents were never contacted and it was generally accepted that I just wasn’t up to scratch. There were frequent jokes from teachers and administration about my lack of intelligence. (Many times I heard my deputy principal say, “If you had another brain it would be lonely”). This didn’t offend me in any way as I recall, it just sounded truthful to me. I do clearly recall getting zero out of fifty for a technical drawing exam, whereas the boy next to me got one mark for an excellent drawing of a girl in a bikini. (I thought he should he should have been graded higher).

So that was my high school experience. The bar was set very low for me because that was all I was capable of. Low expectations that I lived up to and then some.

This dovetailed neatly into the raw fact that my parents were completely uninspiring. (That’s hard to write). I envy the people who have many stories about how their father or mother passionately believed in them and dutifully imparted wise council upon them. Often you will here people say they owe everything to their substantial parental guidance during their upbringing. I owe nothing. My late father was cold and callous towards me and regularly ran me down, confirming what I was told at high school. (He broached telling me about the death of my grandmother by saying, “Have you learned about about God yet at that bloody school of yours?” My reply of “Which God?”, led to him storming off). Mum was pleasant enough although rarely said anything positive. She regrets it now.

About 20 odd years ago I announced that I wanted to be a teacher. This was met with derision by my parents, but a close friend (who has gone on to become my amazingly resilient and supportive wife), encouraged me to have a crack at it. I put it off for a year before sitting the Mature Age Entrance Exam. I became worried and slightly bemused at the completion of the exam because I found it far less difficult than I imagined. A good grasp of basic mathematical concepts and broad general knowledge of the natural and political world seemed to be all that was asked of me. Still, not expecting too much was my dominant thinking. To cut to the chase, I scored better than 99.8% of entrants who had sat the exam in the last decade. This confirmed to me that nearly everyone who sat the exam in the last ten years had been as thick as raisin toast. However, I do remember thinking that maybe I could raise the bar just a little.

I entered university with of course low expectations for any real success. I rolled along fairly uneventfully for twelve months scraping by with some pass marks, and then it happened. I started my two units of sociology and met a lecturer who had high expectation for his students. He had very long hair, wore tattered jeans, (before it was fashionable), dirty flannelette shirts and finished the ensemble with decidedly worn sandals. He smoked foul smelling cheap cigars, and reeked of expensive whiskey. He was treated with disdain by the faculty and I believe there were regular complaints about his colourful language. I was having none of it. He stood out like Yoda on an NBA court to me. This guy was different!

From day one made it very clear to all in his class that he was here to teach us something about sociology, and he expected us to learn and be successful.   “You will pass my class with flying colours or I’ve fucked up!” He told us the chapters of the two massive Sociology textbooks that he thought were bullshit and he wasn’t going to worry about. In the tutorials he engaged each and every student and was incredibly concise with his answers to questions. He was happy to meet me on many occasions in the uni bar and with a few beers help me with my growing problems in passing my exams. Gems like, “Piaget, mad as a cut snake, full of appalling pseudoscience and obsessed with arses, gotta love him!” I learned to embrace my psychology lessons. His advice was invaluable to me; learn what you need to learn to be successful here. If not don’t worry about being a teacher! One of his most valuable pieces of advice was straight to the point, “There’s plenty of time for critical thinking, but university aint the place for it”.

Above all he constantly reminded me and the other students that he expected us to be successful in his courses. He told us explicitly what we need to do to achieve this. If we weren’t successful he believed that was his failing not ours. Nothing was too much trouble, and his unrelenting belief in promoting high expectations for each and everyone of us resonated with me.

He didn’t last long at the university, his language and dress sense were considered “unprofessional”, and maybe they were. But his passion for his students and their success was unquestionable in my eyes. On his last day at the uni soon before my graduation we shared a beer and I thanked him again for his support. The last thing he said to me was “Fuck off and be a great teacher”. I never saw him again, but that last thing he said to me really mattered. He had high expectations of me.

If you have reached this far, Thank you and well done.

MJ

@seminyaksunset

 

 

Promoting Disruptive Paradigms or Something

Welcome to the very first Disengaged Educator Blog post. It’s hard to know what shape or direction this blog will take (if any), but I will endeavor to make it interesting. Essentially it is a vehicle for me to collect my thoughts, however, if it strikes a chord with others occasionally that’s a bonus. Lets bounce! (Watching too much Breaking Bad).

I often find it hard to engage with many educators on twitter. The main reason seems to be they are often speaking a different language to what I’m used to. I don’t mean it’s not English; it’s just that I’m often completely disarmed by the semantic confusion created. Lets jump right into what I mean.

There are a lot phrases and buzzwords that swirl around edutwitter. This is not an unusual occurrence in many different communities of course. What is baffling (at least for me), is that often these education catchphrases can carry varied meanings and thus not actually say anything concrete or definable. I can sometimes follow an education twitter chat for 15 minutes and everyone is high-fiving and fist pumping, and they still haven’t said anything. What you should not do in these chats is ask, “ What does that mean in practical terms, what does it look like in the classroom? ” People haven’t got time to vaguely explain, it’s quickly on to cheering for the next, “ Dream high and aim a moonshot at students and their 21c passionpreneurships!”

Essentially of course this is my problem. The answer is a simple one. Don’t follow these chats, and I rarely do. Who am I to challenge people on what they mean when they clearly find it inspiring? Who indeed cares if I don’t know what people are going on about? Big woop! The fly in the ointment is that this foggy bewilderment often happens to me to in general education twitter talk. For the most part it is generally accepted that we are all on the same 21c learning train. Thankfully for me there is a small band on twitter who also stayed at the station as the Deepak Chopra woo woo express chugged away into the distance.

This site is useful when trying to decipher what all this means, and why perhaps these beliefs have spawned an industry of waffle and vague statements.

‘It should be noted that the “21st century skills” concept encompasses a wide-ranging and amorphous body of knowledge and skills that is not easy to define and that has not been officially codified or categorized. While the term is widely used in education, it is not always defined consistently, which can lead to confusion and divergent interpretations. In addition, a number of related terms—including applied skills, cross-curricular skills, cross-disciplinary skills, interdisciplinary skills, transferable skills, transversal skills, non-cognitive skills, and soft skills, among others—are also widely used in reference to the general forms of knowledge and skill commonly associated with 21st century skills.’

Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ also helps to frame these language barriers nicely I think.

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means? ‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

‘Oh!’ said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

It really has reached absurd proportions. I just can’t imagine a teacher standing in front of the class and saying, “You need to learn skills for jobs that haven’t been invented yet”. If you have taught your class well I hope the response from the class would be complete and abject bewilderment followed by a chorus of “Why on earth do you think that?” There are all sort of fractions bandied around about how many jobs could be obsolete or not yet thought of in ten years time. The Truth is we just don’t know. Maybe 1% of jobs will be obsolete in ten years?

How did we get here? Why do so many educators on twitter gather together, clap hands and throw flowers into the air? I think perhaps some people are genuinely inspired and passionate about this swirling quagmire of opaque language, and perhaps quietly thankful that they can join in the celebrations without ever being considered an outsider, an interloper who doesn’t have a clue what is being discussed. It is a safe space where you won’t be challenged because there is common ground and yet very little is transparent. While that sounds counterintuitive, it is in essence a safe and comfortable space where what you say is far less important than how it sounds.

I could be completely wrong about all of this of course, but it wouldn’t matter because I will target compelling differentiated lessons in authentic, real-world scenarios across spatial and temporal scales, promoting disruptive cognitive paradigms.

If you have reached this far, thank you and well done.

MJ

@seminyaksunset