Month: January 2014

Not stressed enough?

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I know I’ve only been in my job for three days – not even a full week! But in that space of time I’ve had the same unusual conversation with three different teachers independently. With only very slight variations, it goes like this:

Them: So, how are you finding everything?
Me: It all seems to be going okay so far.
Them: Really? Adapting to the new school and all the head teacher stuff alright?
Me: I think so…
Them: Actually, I did want to tell you that you don’t look very stressed.

Which makes me kind of wonder – is that intended to be a compliment, or an insult? Is it, “You don’t look very stressed – you’re doing really well to stay composed!” Or is it supposed to be: “You don’t look very stressed – are you sure you’re actually doing your job?! You should be more stressed!!”

Early days yet – but loving it so far. Time will tell!

 

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Is video the professional learning silver bullet?

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Now that I’ve got your attention, allow me to immediately let you down by telling you that the answer is no. But does video – specifically, online streaming video in relatively small* chunks, as has been popularised by Youtube and its brethren – have the potential to solve some really important problems in professional learning (hereafter PL)? Only time (and some significant trial and error) will tell, but I think there may be something really valuable here, if we’re willing to explore it.

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To explain, let me give you some context first. Last week I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Chris Tisdell, who lectures in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of New South Wales. Some may think that what I’ve been doing with my Youtube channel is quite new, but Chris has been in this game for over 6 years now (his channel has almost 16000 subscribers)! Admittedly he’s been uploading videos on university-level mathematics and I’ve been covering content from high school, but in principle we’re about the same thing: explaining maths clearly and for free. So it shouldn’t have surprised me to find that Chris and I are on the same page in a whole lot of ways –in our motivations for what we’re doing, in our attitudes toward maths education (and maths educators!), and in what excites us about this new and fledgling platform of learning through online video.

But the truth is that as we talked, I found it utterly refreshing – not just because meeting him afforded a break from the dry monotony of writing year 9 programs, but because I felt I’d found someone who so totally understood where I was coming from and what I was doing. Not only that, but since Chris has been doing this so much longer than I have, he has met many of the same challenges I’ve encountered while “doing this Youtube thing”, and he has come out the other side more confident and convinced of the value of what we’re doing than ever. That’s really encouraging, because one of the things that plagues every educator who’s breaking new ground (especially with technology) is the constant fear that what you’re investing in is just another fad that will come and go, having shown to provide no substantial value for learning. Seeing Chris a few (or, a lot of) steps ahead of me, and discussing how helpful this has been to various students, cements me in my stance that video is something that has genuine value for teaching and learning. It may not be a silver bullet – nothing is, really – it seems to be authentically useful to people, in the kind of way that makes a technology (like the book, or the chalkboard) stick around.

Which brings me back to why I started writing this post. Something I didn’t expect about my meeting with Chris was that, while we talked plenty about various types of students and how video has been valuable to them, Chris had more of an interest in using video as a learning tool for teachers. This is something that I have only given passing thoughts to before and haven’t dwelled on much, but the more the idea circulated around my head, the more attractive it became. Let me talk you through why.

I’m obviously speaking from the perspective of a maths teacher, but from what I can tell, many of the things I’m about to describe apply more or less to all secondary teachers. (I don’t know enough about primary teaching to make a judgement call, but some of this may be even truer for them than it is for us; I’m just not sure.) Educators need PL the way a room needs open windows; even the best of the first become stale after a while without the second. This need is particularly acute among mathematics teaching, for a number of reasons: (1) critical shortage of effective maths teachers, which has led to (2) a large proportion of retrained teachers from other subjects, which is great but leads to its own problems; and (3) the subject matter is cognitively intense!

(Teachers of other subjects, please don’t hear me saying that other subjects aren’t cognitively intense; anyone who knows me personally and is familiar with my proclivity for the humanities would know that I would never say such a thing. I’m making a statement of fact, not of comparison: maths is just plain hard work for anyone’s brain!)

So the maths teacher population in general needs PL, and it needs it badly. The problem is that maths teachers – not all of them, but a lot of them – don’t want to do it. Why is that? Like most things in the real world it’s complicated, and there is whole range of reasons – but pretty close to the top of the list for most teachers, I think, would be time poverty.

Teachers are famously time-poor people. The vast majority of tasks that a teacher does are bottomless time holes – they aren’t necessarily bad things to do, but they just suck up as much time as you give them and happily ask for more. That exam you’re writing? You can spend more time to make the questions more balanced. Those students who need one-to-one help with troubleshooting questions? You can spend more time with them outside class. The lesson you’re planning? You can spend more time to make the explanation clearer and tie in more closely to the exercises you’ve set. The extra-curricular group that you’re running? You can spend more time researching and implementing new ideas for how to run its activities better.

I could go on and on – and I haven’t even gotten started on the myriad of tasks that a head teacher has to do above and beyond the tasks and responsibilities of a normal teacher (nor have I mentioned those perilous phrases, “having a life” or “raising a family”)! The point is that there are unlimited worthwhile opportunities to spend time on, and only limited time to spend. Everyone has the same 168 hours every week to spend, and no one gets extra to spend. I know schools can spend money to free up their staff to attend PL, and this is a good and necessary step – but it is problematic for a variety of reasons (not least of which is that there is precious little of that money to go around for the amount of PL that needs to be done).

That segues back into my original question. What does online video have to offer that can alleviate this situation? Of course it’s not going to be perfect, and it’s certainly not going to be a substitute for the other kinds of PL that exist out there. They’re all different and they each fit into their own niches. But the more I think about it, the more I think online video has may have something worthwhile to offer. What is that exactly, you say? Well I think this blog post is about long enough right now, so I’m going to end on a cliffhanger and let you stew on the question yourself until I post the next half of my thoughts on this topic!

Twitter beginner

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I’m a bit of a paradox, really. I suppose everyone is in some respect, but I seem to be self-contradictory in a whole variety of ways. (Warning: prepare for stereotypes!) I’m Asian, but I studied no sciences in high school. I went to a selective school, but I became a teacher* (and not in any of the subjects I majored in at school!). I’m Gen Y, but I started a family early. But of particular note to me today is that I’m a technology enthusiast (and generally, an early adopter) – but I’ve only quite recently started using Twitter.

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I was reminded of this fact when I woke up today and noticed I’d passed this milestone (100 followers), which is notable because of how infantile it is. (In the Twittersphere, 100 followers is hardly any. It’d be like a marathon runner celebrating that he’d run 100 metres.) The number is small mainly because it’s a function of how long (and how much) I’ve used the service – which is to say, not very long (or much) at all.

This year I want to change that, since I’m convinced there are real benefits – to be had and to be shared with others! Let’s see how prescient that statement turns out to be.

* That’s a stereotype I’m determined to erode in the years to come. 🙂

Nemesis

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I enjoy doing maths and I spend a lot of time working on it, but I have a hard time calling myself a mathematician. It’s not because I dislike the label – on the contrary, I don’t feel as though I’m really worth of the title. Real mathematicians… well, they’re the kind of people who go to the National Mathematics Summer School (NMSS, affectionately pronounced as Nemesis).

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Some of the view during my walk from the bus stop to the part of the ANU campus where I stayed.

Perhaps you think you know some nerds. Do they chuckle with childish delight when considering the cyclical nature of inverses that exist in the set of Gaussian integers modulo the complex number (4 + i)? No? Then step aside and let the real nerds take the stage. These guys – and hence by extension, their tutors and lecturers (who are mostly NMSS alumni) – are the real deal.

I would never have attended NMSS as a student. I didn’t have anywhere near the mathematical chops to even be considered as a candidate (there are roughly 70 positions for the entirety of Australia). But I may well have enjoyed it if I had been invited. Since it’s a gathering of students from across the country, they try to assume very little prior knowledge – hence their focus on number theory, which is renowned as easily accessible and abundance of opportunities to “think deeply about simple things”, the motto of NMSS’s recently retired director.

It’s intentionally different from a school learning environment, which by its very nature emphasises assessment and competitiveness. No one hands in their problems and marks aren’t assigned for anything. The whole experience is crafted to encourage exploration, playfulness and creativity. If you’re not a maths teacher – or even if you are – and those words seem like the antithesis of mathematics to you, then that’s a sad testimony to just how different high school maths is to the actual maths that mathematicians do. (I’m not sure if that’s a gap that will ever be bridged, but there it is for whatever you want to make of it.)

But this week, I wasn’t there as a student – I was there as a teacher, to get a concentrated version of what the students were experiencing and then to think about how that would inform our practice as educators (particularly with regard to nurturing and encouraging gifted and talented mathematicians). It was a jam-packed couple of days and I found myself constantly thinking of new and awesome ideas that I would love to start implementing when I get back to the real world, but unfortunately I think I’ve just about maxed out (or exceeded) the number of new things I’ll be doing this year. So mostly I think I was mentally filing things away for the future, waiting for a time when I can act on them and give them the time and effort they deserve.

One thing that remains deeply impressed on my mind, though, is the importance of teaching mathematics in an engaging way (and, related to that, encouraging people who are capable of that into the profession rather than ushering them off into engineering or actuarial studies). Being exposed to so many passionate maths teachers (and I use that term broadly of anyone who teaches mathematics, not just people who work in high schools) was a vivid reminder of how important the delivery method is in shaping a students’ experience of a subject.

If someone teaches you how to cook by forcing you through lessons and explaining things in a bland way (see what I did there?), then who can blame you for disliking the kitchen? But if someone visibly enjoys the process of mashing food together in an awful mess, if they express genuine delight at the intriguing ways that foods can relate and be combined with one another, if they marvel with closed eyes at the smell of what they have just concocted, then who can help but feel inspired to try and master the same subject that brings so much joy? And I think that is a part of why Jamie Oliver rose to fame so rapidly (and subsequently kept it). I hate cooking, I hate the lengthy preparation, I hate the mess, and I hate the low-quality stuff that I usually produce. But when I watch Jamie Oliver at work, I want to get up and cook. I want to give it a go and learn how he does what he does. And that’s exactly the same vibe that the NMSS tutors and lecturers give off to the students who are privileged enough to attend.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if ordinary students could experience some of that during their normal schooling? It shouldn’t just be for the elites. I’m under no illusion that the whole NMSS experience can be replicated on a large scale for the entirety of a school year, but the world deserves to know that mathematics is a fascinating and amazing subject – not the dry, boring thing that most people think maths is. And we’ll need passionate mathematicians and educators to accomplish that. Now there’s a long term goal worth working on!

Where the milkshakes are tall and the hours are short

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Right now I’m in Canberra for the National Mathematics Summer School, which is a program run for talented mathematics students from all over the country. This year for the first time, they’re trialing a teacher component to the NMSS – two intensive days (rather than the two weeks that the students get) which give us a brief taste of what the school is like for the students, and also provide an opportunity for us to do some professional development too. (Getting my head back into undergraduate maths for three hours? Yep, my brain is pretty much melted right now.)

But that’s not what I wanted to write about today. (I’ll save my reflection for the bus ride back to Sydney.) I had the pleasure of meeting and sitting down to chat with the exuberant Betty Chau (who maintains the fantastic @PositiveSchool account, not to mention a fantastic blog) over a milkshake in a lovely outdoor cafe close to ANU (where I’m staying). I shouldn’t speak for her, but I had a fantastic time – evidenced by the fact that I remained completely oblivious to the passing time and became totally absorbed in our conversation way over the time when I was meant to be back on campus for dinner. (For the record Betty, I did in fact make it back inside just as they were about to pack up and finish serving – so thanks for driving that little extra distance at the end!)

Aside from raving about the superiority of the ACT secondary schooling system (something I’m totally willing to admit – sorry NSW, I love you but I hate you too), Betty shared with me her passion for positive psychology. (For the uninformed, to give you a brief and over-simplified summary, it’s an approach toward people’s mental wellbeing that focuses on their strengths rather than on what’s wrong with them.) I found it both intriguing and refreshing, for a few different reasons.

Firstly, though the idea of positive psychology seems to be gaining currency, the practice of positive psychology in the schools that I’m familiar with is lacking to say the least. When Betty told me a few things about how positive principles were a part of her classroom practice, the kinds of structures that some schools in Canberra have in place to implement it and the kind of helpful effect it was having on her students, I was just blown away. This is something that we definitely need to learn from.

Secondly, it dawned on me just how relevant it was for all teachers – but particularly mathematics teachers, since that’s what’s going through my head at NMSS – to be caring for the psychological needs of our students in a positive and nurturing way. Mathematics has a just reputation as possibly the most demoralising high school subject in existence, with a massive (usually damaging) psychological effect on thousands of students every year. I’m convinced that this is part of the reason why so many students are convinced that they are bad at maths: regardless of their actual mathematical ability, they have had a series of bad experiences with studying maths that have left them psychologically scarred and they have (understandably) just given up on ever understanding it. This is a great tragedy and something that drastically needs to be changed.

Thirdly, Betty’s smile and enthusiasm are pretty infectious. That’s not a very professional assessment of the facts but it’s true!

So as I continue to think about the new role I’m starting this year, I’m now faced with this question: amid all the organisational decisions, the results analysis, the academic rigour and everything else that a head teacher is supposed to be prioritising – how will I care for my students’ wellbeing? What principles will I bring to the way I interact with students and lead my faculty to ensure that we develop their strengths rather than become fixated on their weaknesses?

For that matter – how will you be caring for your students’ wellbeing? Now there’s a question worth considering as January 28 approaches!

My new workspace

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Teaching myth #1: teachers are lazy because they get massive holidays (at least, compared to the 4 weeks of annual leave that most workers in Australia get). This myth is perpetuated because it’s half-true (yes, we do get a relatively large amount of leave – roughly 11 weeks of breaks between school terms), but it’s not true. Teachers who are idle during their school holidays are the exception, not the rule. Case in point: here I am in the middle of summer, setting up my new workspace during the holidays.

Okay, I’ll admit that (especially given the new step-up in responsibility involved in my new role) it would have been plain foolish to not come in during the holidays to bring in all my resources and arrange my desk before the school term begins officially. Here’s how it looks at the moment.

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It’s pretty bare right now, but that’s because term hasn’t begun yet. Just wait… the chaos is coming.

The staffroom I’m working in is quite different to the one at my previous school. It’s a combined staffroom, housing 4 faculties (Science, Technology, Creative & Performing Arts, Mathematics) and 67 staff. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this kind of arrangement – Fort Street High School (where I did a practicum and subsequently had my first full-time job) also has combined staffrooms – but the scale of this one is still something to behold.

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Click the photo above for a bigger version. This image is a pair of panoramas combined together, but the stitching in the middle isn’t perfect. It’s still good enough to get a sense of the working environment, though.

New… year, school, role, blog!

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I have always loved to write. Since a young age, I have always owned little notebooks where I scrawled down thoughts and ideas. During high school, I always enjoyed creative writing and subjected myself to the vagueness of English Extension 1 (to me, anyway) so that I could enrol in English Extension 2 and create a major work. It was at uni that I discovered the joy of writing for its own sake – writing because I wanted to, not because I had to in connection with some external assessment or other requirement. Writing because it was a useful way to form, develop and retain thoughts. I started a blog, made methodical notes on anything I wanted to really learn, and engaged in all kinds of other writing to keep my brain going.

In the last 15 years, I’ve created and killed countless writing projects. It’s been a while since I started a new one – so, why a new blog in 2014? It’s a paradox, really. This year, I’ll be undergoing the biggest professional change since I started full-time work. I’ll be in a new role at a new school and the learning curve will be very steep, particularly in the first 12-18 months. That makes it both the best and worst time to start a writing project like this. It’s the worst time because I’ll have the least time to commit to it; it’s the best time because a time like this, when I am going to be going through a lot of new experiences and forming new working principles, is precisely when writing is most beneficial.

So here goes nothing. Let’s see how long it lasts. I hope to learn lots as I write here – and maybe even you will too.