Why I think it’s important to understand evolution

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:38 pm

I’ve decided to re-animate this blog for a while to post a short series of clear, simple discussions of some of the common arguments that are used to reject evolutionary theory as an explanation for the current diversity of living things on Earth.

When I raised the issue on Facebook, a friend asked “Why is it so important to you to persuade people to believe the Theory of Evolution?”, which is a great question. So this post is both an introduction to the series (initially I think there might be about 10 posts in total, but it may well grow), and my attempt to answer that question.

First, I think there’s value in clarifying that evolution is not something we ‘believe in’ in any religious sense. Rather, we ‘believe that’ it is the theory that best explains all of the available evidence… until a better one comes along. This is true for all scientific theories.

With that in mind, then, I care that people understand evolutionary theory because I care about what is true, and because it is a theory that we use in things like medical and pharmaceutical advances that save lives. Rejecting it is also strongly associated with rejecting science in other domains such as vaccines and climate change. It also makes people very vulnerable to liars and charlatans.

I suppose there’s one or two other notes worth including in this introductory post: I’ve been using the words ‘evolution’ and ‘evolutionary theory’, but it is probably more accurate to talk about the ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’ – the sum of the best current understanding on the part of evolutionary biologists of the mechanisms through which life perpetuates itself and changes.

Those who reject evolution often talk of ‘Darwinism’, but this is inaccurate for two reasons:

  1. Evolutionary theory is a scientific theory, not an ideology. It is not an ‘ism’. Confusing the kind of thing an idea is confuses our thinking.
  2. While Charles Darwin was important in outlining the broad lines of evolution, others also did so before and since. He wrote in a time when he did not know of the existence of genes or DNA, so he got some things wrong. Science, by its nature, moves on, and evolutionary science is no exception. Refuting Darwin may not refute the modern evolutionary synthesis, and vice versa. (A related point is that traducing Darwin’s character or motivations does not refute evolutionary theory.)

The other point is about the use of ‘theory’ in relation to evolution, and this is something I’ve already written about elsewhere: Facts, Theories and Laws

I hope that the journey will be interesting and useful for all of us.

For ease of navigation I will include links to each of the other posts in this series at the bottom of each post.

Cosmogenesis, abiogenesis and evolution
Evolution and entropy
Facts, Theories and Laws
Radiocarbon dating
Radiometric dating and deep time
Four Forces of the Universe
Probability and evolution
Species and ‘baramin’, macro- and micro-evolution
Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam
Transitional fossils
Complexity – irreducible and otherwise


Smash Those Boxes (And Maybe Pee On Them A Little)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:52 pm

Reading, and absolutely loving, Harlan Coben’s novel ‘Six Years’. It’s a mystery story that feels genuinely new. But there was one passage, on page 44, that made me feel like shouting ‘hallelujah!’. See, the protagonist is a uni lecturer… and this is what he says:

I focused on the student essays. Most were numbingly tedious and expected, written as though to fit a high school teacher’s rote expectations. These were top-level students who knew how to write ‘A+’ high school papers, what with their opening paragraph, introductory sentences, supportive body, all that stuff that makes an essay solid and ridiculously boring. As I mentioned earlier, my job is to get them to think critically. That was always more important to me than having them remember the specific philosophies of, say, Hobbes or Locke. You could always look those up and be reminded of what they were. Rather, what I really hoped was my students would learn to both respect and piss all over Hobbes and Locke. I wanted them to not only think outside the box, but to get to that outside by smashing the box into little pieces.

How I feel and what I think, captured perfectly! University should be beyond ticking boxes. Maybe those things are necessary in high school: gotta learn the rules before you can break ’em. But once you know them, you ought to be able to break them good and hard. To be creative and critical and thoughtful, and to let yourself and the way you feel and think come through… rather than making the essay fit the same cookie cutter as the other couple of dozen on my desk.

When I’m marking, I’ll do all I can to recognise that. I can tell the difference between breaking the rules because you’re utterly familiar with them, and breaking the rules because you never bothered to learn them. I try really, really hard to make sure that when tutors mark work in courses I teach, they have the same view, and make the same judgements. Very occasionally, that doesn’t quite work – a tutor ends up wanting to mark which boxes have been ticked off. As I said, I try really hard to train and support and moderate and help them to think outside that frame…

But you know what? Not getting an A+ is not a tragedy either. The work has value in itself. If you wrote something that was amazing, and felt good while you were writing it, and stretched you to the edge of your powers and beyond, and that you know is good… then you’re confident enough to (a) query the mark it gets if you feel it doesn’t reflect the work done and (b) even if that doesn’t work, know in your heart that you did great work, and are capable of great work.

I’ve been on selection panels. And, believe it or not, that confidence that you are capable of great, creative, box-smashing work shines through in an interview, and is more likely to get you a job – at least, in a place discerning enough that you’d want to work there – than a pristine GPA.


Parker Palmer’s ‘The Courage To Teach’ – Don’t teach without it

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:05 pm

Currently re-reading ‘The Courage To Teach’… and it’s so freakin’ good!!!1! It says everything I feel and believe and want to say about teaching – my vocation – and so much more.

I want to quote the whole book on Facebook.

I would go so far as to say that, despite all our best efforts in teacher education programs, you’re not fully prepared to be a teacher until you’ve read this book.

I’m committing myself to re-read it once a year… and recommending it to everyone.

Not even gonna try to summarise here – just read it.


Teach For {Your Corporate Masters}

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:35 pm

Good, if long, article about Teach For America.


It might be worth noting that the author seems to use ‘liberal’ to mean something close to ‘libertarian’, rather than its more usual modern US usage.

Why are we spending millions replicating this failed experiment in Australia?


A Call To Arms

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:16 pm

An excellent letter from a retiring US teacher to college professors:


The context is different but the issues are very similar here: excessive testing is breaking education.

Year 3 kids can learn quantum mechanics

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:17 pm

Very cool story from the Queensland Science Teacher journal:



An Open (Science Teaching) Forum

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:53 am

I was struck by an idea while riding in this morning1. I was thinking about MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses – clickety for more info). Suzie has just joined one from Berkeley, an introduction to statistics, and I’m doing some writing about connectivism, the underlying theory.

At the same time, I’m working on setting up the web sites for two courses I’ll be teaching this semester, which will be on ‘Learning@Griffith’, the closed, Blackboard-based system we use here.

I can understand the need for a closed system: it protects students’ online safety, allows us to do some stuff with copyrighted materials that wouldn’t be allowed in an open site (and one of the other things that informed my thinking was a comment from Connie Varnhagen about IP being one of the differences between running a closed course and running a MOOC) and, if forum postings are being used for assessment, it helps make sure it’s the student who does the assessed work.

At the same time, there are many, many benefits to having an open forum. Among other things, I have a heap of my former students who are out there teaching and who would be able to answer questions and offer perspectives. I also have a heap of cool and interesting friends, sciencey and otherwise, who might (a) be interested to see what we’re discussing and (b) would be able to offer interesting insights and perspectives.

I’ve already said I’ll be posting some of the info from the science education course in Semester One on my blog, and the new idea this morning was to create an open forum. It will be about science teaching, and will be available for my students but open to the world. I’ll announce the URL here when I build it, and probably pester you incessantly to post there!

Edit: And here it is: http://www.bravus.com.au/tribes/

One advantage of an open forum that I ‘own’ on my own server space is that it’s persistent: forums in course web sites die when the courses finish, after one semester, whereas the forums that have influenced me have been part of my life for up to 10 years. In particular, as discussed below, some of my students will move from one course to another with me, and it’d be great to have the forum come with them. And, of course, former students from past years are an awesome resource for current teacher education students. An open forum now allows me to draw in former students I keep in touch with, and allows this year’s students to be a resource for next year’s, and so on: this is a project for the long haul.

(that’s the end of the main blog post: the description of the idea, its antecedents and implications. The following is detail stuff that I’m writing as much to work out for myself as anything else…)

In Semester One, which starts in a couple of weeks, I’m teaching two courses (a third got cancelled), one on science education for middle years (usually defined as Grades 6-9) teachers and one on general pedagogical stuff for teachers of the same age group. Since the forum will be focused on science teaching, it will be more relevant to the former group, but one of the joys of openness is that it will be available for students in the other group. And there may even be some overlap between the two classes anyway.

In Semester Two, which starts in July, I’m teaching three courses. One is for primary school science teachers (to be) and the other two are for teachers of senior secondary school science (Grades 11-12 or 10-12). So all the courses are science education focused, and many of the students in the senior science courses will have done the middle years science course in Semester One, which is cool because they’ll (hopefully) already have climbed the learning curve and be able to get the most out of it.

I’ve used forums in the past, on the ‘if you build it, they will come’ principle, and they didn’t – well, not in great numbers. But I think in some ways that won’t matter: people will use the resources they find useful. I know that different people have different modes, and forums aren’t for everyone. I also know that typically 90% lurk (read only) and 10% post, so relatively small numbers of posters don’t mean the forum is ineffective.

The Semester Two primary science education course does include on assessment task that is forum-discussion based, and for that I will use the the Discussion Forum that is built in to the Learning@Griffith site for that course, for all the reasons discussed above about making discussions ‘safe’ when assessment is involved. I hope, though, that being familiar with the open forum will make the assessment easier for students, although I do worry about whether having two fora might be confusing for them… I guess we’ll see.

Over all, I think it’s an innovation with the potential to make my teaching more effective. I guess we’ll see.

  1. On the motorbike: I rode the bicycle the past two days, but when I ride that all my energy goes into breathing and there’s little time to think!


Open Teaching, Right Here, Right… … In About A Month

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:32 am

I’m inspired by this post from P Z Myers, in which he talks about posting his lecture materials on his blog:

One thing I’m considering doing differently…I might post summaries of lectures and discussion topics here, if time allows. Public exposure of all the stuff that usually goes on behind the doors of the classroom? I don’t know if the world is ready for that.


I don’t start teaching for another couple of weeks, but I think I might share the experiment. I’m teaching two (or three, depending on numbers) classes this semester, but will just do it for one of them. It’s called ‘Teaching and Learning in the Middle Years’, and focuses on helping beginning teachers understand some theories and practices around education for adolescents (the ‘middle years’ tend to be about Grades 6-9, though I have seen it defined as widely as 4-10). I think an audience of smart non-specialists (and some specialists) might quite enjoy a window on the classroom.

Basically, I’ll link to the PowerPoint slideshows I use, probably on Slideshare, and talk a little bit in a post after each week’s ‘lecture’ about what we did apart from what you can gather from the slides.

I might also post a bit about what activities I plan for the tutorials, and how those go.

Just an experiment in openness, that I hope people will find interesting – and in turn, that will enable me to get feedback, questions and challenges that will help to improve my teaching.


Research Funding Freeze Redux

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:19 pm

So, the minibudget came out today, and I guess the news wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Looks like the competitive grant programs’ funding is safe, and the ARC Linkage grant funding round has been opened up for applications, a month or so late.

The Linkage program requires applicants to gain some industry funding to couple with the government funding. It’s a great program, but this hiatus won’t have helped with the already very tough process of finding industry partners in a tight economy.

The final cuts – $500m is the headline number – are to future growth in the Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) program. Slightly bitterly: apparently sustainable research excellence is no longer a priority.

That program gave funding to universities to cover the associated costs of research. Research grants cover things like infrastructure, researcher salaries, travel and so on, but there are lots of administrative costs, building space costs, electricity and water and a huge number of other costs that go into keeping research happening. Prior to the SRE program – and, to some extent in the future now – this money had to come out of recurrent federal funding for universities, and even be cross-subsidised by taking money the universities earned for teaching and using it to find the indirect costs of research.

That means today’s decision has the potential not only to impact on research in Australia – the thing that’s going to keep our living standards up once the resource boom winds down – but also to damage education at universities.

I’m a Labor supporter, as everyone knows, but this is a dumb decision, made for political reasons – to fulfil the stupid promise to return the budget to surplus this year, regardless of external factors. I hope that now that stupid promise has been fulfilled, we might see some smarter long term strategic decisions made about funding the things that will build our nation’s future.


Rifat Afeef in the Maldives – Deductive Science

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:50 pm

I’ve received a couple of unsolicited emails from Rifat Ateef, who claims to have identified serious problems in international education and to be able to offer a solution that will transform education and the social sciences.

Rifat’s blog is here and contains a number of writings outlining these ideas.


I’m still reading them myself. The main contention seems to be that we have focused on induction – building up general laws from a large number of examples – rather than deduction – generating specific examples from general laws.

Thing is, we need to deduce from something. The general laws must exist without being empirically induced from our experiences.

I’m interested to see where Rifat goes with the ideas…


Teaching The Ones Who Turn Up

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:41 pm

There are 125 students in my Primary Science Education course. This morning’s lecture would have been lucky to have 50 students attending it. The faces were familiar – the faithful few are faithful.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon in the past couple of weeks – most of the semester there were 90-100 students in attendance each week. But it’s the ‘pointy end’ of the semester, and they have a lot of assessment tasks in this course and their other courses. They have presentations to give in the tutes are after the lecture today and some of them will be preparing for those.

The story with the tutes has been similar, but without the tail off at the end: there are about 26 enrolled for my tute and there have been a faithful 18-20 students in attendance each week, and a few who have turned up never or rarely.

I think I do a decent job on the lectures and tutes, try to make them interesting, relevant, focused and as interactive as I can. But students also have other commitments – many have children and have jobs while they’re studying and so on. I think our courses have tended to be overstuffed with assessment tasks, too, though we’re taking steps to address that.

The tutor in the course is more worried about the no-shows than I am, and would like to either make attendance compulsory or include more questions on the exam that would require tutorial attendance to answer, to motivate students to attend the tutes.

The approach in the lecture is almost the opposite, in some ways – while I do think there’s no substitute for the ‘David live!’ experience, all the lectures are recorded and made available on the web an hour or so after the lecture takes place, and I post my lecture PowerPoint shows and other resources a couple of days before the lecture. The point is, the fact that a student is not in the lecture theatre at 8 am on Tuesday morning (what have I done to the timetablers!) doesn’t mean s/he misses the lecture, because there are other ways to gain access to the information included.

I have to admit that my own impulse is to simply teach those who turn up. Our students are all adults, and get to make their own choices. Sure, it’s a bit frustrating to put in a lot of work preparing for a tute and then have a less than full class, but I think putting our energy into chasing the students who don’t want to be there can shortchange those who do.

I did a quick literature review, and there is good evidence of a strong correlation between turning up and getting better grades. It may sound a bit harsh and Darwinian, but there is more of a glut than a shortage of primary teachers in this state at the moment. The ones who turn up will be the ones who get good grades, and can give sophisticated professional answers at interviews, and will get jobs. And the ones who don’t… well, they’ll be less likely to end up with teaching jobs.

Maybe it’s oversimple, and maybe there are good grounds for requiring attendance, but as I say, my own impulse is simply to let the issue take care of itself – and to keep trying to make the lectures and tutes as valuable as I can.

Science: The New Crusades

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:34 am

OK, it’s not quite on the scale of the famous Billy Graham crusades in Melbourne in the 50s, which packed out the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but An Evening With Brian Cox in Melbourne sold 1800 tickets in one evening yesterday.

The fact that women tend to think he’s dreamy (pic at the link above) and he used to play keyboards in a band probably doesn’t hurt, but the fact that he’s talking about the universe and is a very good science communicator is the interesting bit.

Neil Degrasse Tyson is perhaps a bit less dreamy, but I’m sure would get a similar or greater reaction. There seems to be a real hunger for science – perhaps particularly astronomy, but other sciences too – in society. Which gives me hope, in a world that sometimes feels as though it’s being relentlessly dumbed down.

There’s a slightly different focus, but the big atheist conferences also tend to feature, as well as anti religious jeremiads, celebrations of science, and the audiences for those are growing year on year too.

Teachers who can find ways to ignite, rather than extinguish, that drive in their students are likely to be popular and influential too – even if they were never in a band.


Phj34r teh Mighty Ducks!!!1!

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:34 am

I’m not posting this in relation to creationism and evolution, nor homosexuality and homophobia, although it touches on all those issues.


It’s about science education… which is what I do.

Students don’t have to ‘believe in’ evolution: but they do have to understand it.

And, honestly, they are in no position to make judgements about it if they don’t.


Utterly Antithetical

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:32 pm

Here’s a bit from this report by Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley:

In his new book on Finnish Educational Reform, Finland’s greatest educational expert and former World Bank specialist, Pasi Sahlberg, refers to this pervasive new Second Way strategy as the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) (Sahlberg, 2011). The GERM has five defining characteristics:

  • Standardized Teaching and Learning with “clear, high, centrally prescribed performance standards for all schools, teachers, and students”;
  • A focus on Literacy and Numeracy and basic skills in reading, writing, mathematics and natural sciences;
  • Teaching for Predetermined Results with predictable and uniform outcomes;
  • Renting Market-oriented Reform Ideas from other systems or sectors rather than devising one’s own solutions;
  • Test-Based Accountability linked to systems of inspection, punishment and reward;
  • Control through continuous monitoring of data

With colleagues Dean Fink, Ivor Goodson and others, one of us evaluated the impact of these reforms on a range of secondary schools in Ontario and New York
State (Hargreaves, 2003). We found the reforms were utterly antithetical to the knowledge society objectives of schools then being promoted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and its associated goals of increasing innovation and creativity. – Hargreaves & Shirley, 2011

(Emphasis is mine.)

The whole report is well worth reading.

As I mentioned in response to Jana’s comment on another post, if governments and systems would simply stop embracing all the wrong ‘reforms’ so enthusiastically there’d be more hope. The prescription for the woes caused by these policies seems to be ‘more of the same’.

What do Hargreaves and Shirley think are the solutions? Guess you’ll have to read the report to find out!

Fixing Education: The View From A Student’s Desk

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:08 pm

The title of this article in Forbes magazine might be a bit overblown (and you might have to endure an ad to read the article), but Nikhil Goyal is talking a lot of sense: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericaswallow/2012/09/05/american-education-system-nikhil-goyal/

It would be awesome if the fact that he’s a student got a bit of a groundswell going.


The ‘Invisible Backpack’

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:45 am


Have to admit, the response of the principal (and I suspect many of the parents) in the exclusive private school is a huge part of the problem with Australia’s education system – which has been internationally characterised as ‘high quality, low equity’.

‘Equity’ is about opportunities rather than outcomes: can’t mandate equal outcomes for all, wouldn’t necessarily want to. But the notion of the ‘invisible backpack’ of social capital is a helpful way of thinking about why ‘equal dollars for all students irrespective of sector’ is *not* a recipe for equity of opportunity.

Rather than blaming poor kids (or even their parents) for their lack of the specific kinds of social capital that lead to success in schools, it is better for Australia’s future to invest in breaking the cycles and helping all students succeed.


Giving a Gonski 2

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:04 am

I’ve been promising a more detailed response to Monday’s announcements from the government in response to the Gonski report into school funding – so I guess this is that.

One of the first points is that the government hasn’t, as yet, really responded to the Gonski report… rather, it has made a major announcement about school funding.

This from the Opposition: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/breaking-news/oppn-call-for-detailed-gonski-response/story-e6frf7kf-1226465566079

Now, Pyne is a bit of a petulant git, and it’s silly to demand detailed funding commitments, because the funding *does* depend on the states coming to the party. School education is a state responsibility in Australia, and the Federal government’s funding is only 30% of the total. Demand all you like, the national government can’t simply mandate what the states will do.

But a more detailed response to the recommendations in the Gonski report – many of which were focused on the problems of equity in Australian school funding – would be very helpful, and address quite a lot of my disquiet about the response.

This post from The Conversation does a nice job of addressing the major issues: http://theconversation.edu.au/the-real-agenda-behind-gillards-gonski-response-9305

The key point I had in addition to the good points raised in this article is that this response does not arrest, but expands, the culture of teacher ‘accountability’, measurement and surveillance.

Higher entry requirements for the profession (defined in terms of university entry scores – which it could be argued don’t actually predict teacher excellence very well at all), more surveillance – more and more of the things that make teaching no fun, and no more of the things that make teaching fun: actually teaching kids. More paperwork, less trust.

There is already a shortage of secondary science teachers (though there’s a bit of a glut of primary teachers in Queensland). Making the job both harder to get into and harder to stay in is only going to make that worse.

More funding is welcome – but it’s not really being targeted well, and the tradeoffs in terms of breaking down the public school system are deeply worrying.


Giving a Gonski

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:14 pm

7 am

This will be an evolving post throughout the day. The Prime Minister is set to deliver the government’s response to the Gonski review of school funding that it set up. The headline findings of the review were that school education needs an additional 5 billion dollars a year, and that it’s time, finally, to do something about the inequities between funding of private and public education.

Have to admit that my attitude can be summarised as ‘hoping for the best and preparing for the worst’. Would be lovely to be ‘surprised by courage’…

9 am

Predictions from Michelle Grattan at The Age: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/political-news/pm-pledge-for-top-five-school-spot-20120902-258k5.html

“Today’s announcement will put front and centre a major difference between the parties, with the Coalition saying it would repeal any legislation to implement Gonski, and Tony Abbott recently suggesting independent schools already do not get a just deal.”

1:30 pm

Liveblog of the announcement is here: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/blogs/the-pulse/gonski-live-september-3-2012-20120903-2594u.html

While the overall plan is positive, the fact that it is contingent on (mostly conservative now) State governments worries me.

And this chills my spine:

The Prime Minister:
New funding will be contingent on states and systems agreeing to and delivering school improvement – and school improvement takes time.

Can you say ‘No Child Left Behind’? If school funding is contingent on narrowly-defined ‘improvement’ (i.e. perpetually rising test scores), this is anti-reform.

1:40 pm

Disappointing (though perhaps inevitable these days) that it is being sold almost entirely on the basis of international economic competitiveness.

And disappointing, too, that these are the focus points (from The Age site linked above):

  • Lifting teacher quality, including requiring more classroom experience before graduation and higher entry requirements for the teaching profession.
  • More power for principals, including over budgets and staff selection.
  • More information for parents through My School.

3:00 pm

Last thing: government’s site on the initiative: http://www.betterschools.gov.au/

My short summary: neither as good, nor as bad, as it could have been. Perhaps a bit more analysis tomorrow, if I have the heart for it…

Superb Article on Teacher Quality

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:47 am

Read, inwardly digest, and share! More carrots than sticks, or at the very least some kind of balance, please… and even more so, a recognition that teachers are a huge part of the solution… demonising them at every turn is about as counterproductive a move as it’s possible to imagine.



Teachers and Teaching

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:24 am

(d’oh! had this one as a draft but no web access in Townsville a couple of weeks ago, and so just discovered it in the Draft box and realised I’d never published it. Hope the content is still interesting)

I’ve been away from home this week conducting a research study in a school, basically observing lessons and interviewing students. This is the second such week in a school (I was in a different school a couple of weeks ago), and I’ve seen a huge range of teachers, students and lessons, in a wide range of subjects and at levels from Year 8 to Year 10.

As always I’ve been very impressed by the professionalism and commitment of the teachers I’ve seen, and the amazing work they do in sometimes very difficult conditions. I’m reminded of the demands on time and energy, particularly emotional energy, and it tends to blunt my yen to be back in the classroom when I see just how hard they work.

I’ll talk in a moment about some directions forward, and will first say that I haven’t seen any bad teachers. Every one of them has been a good person and taught good lessons. In some cases those lessons have been more effective and successful than in others, and that relates to a wide range of factors around the students, the teachers, the subject, the topic and even the time of day and day of the week.

(I think schools should take the advice in the old Dire Straits song ‘Industrial Disease’ to ‘Abolish Monday mornings, and Friday afternoons’.)

One thing that did strike me was how much time students spend in class not learning. In particular the kids who finish their work first spend huge amounts of time sitting around waiting for the teacher to dispense the next task or piece of information. Is it surprising they sometimes mess around? I was bored and fidgety!

There are lots of things that go to make it that way, too, from poorly behaved students who require a lot of teacher time to keep under control to students with reading levels 5 or more years below their grade levels. It also relates to the way we ‘do school’, though, in that students aren’t given autonomy to continue with other work or move ahead, but required to wait on the ‘drip feed’ from the teacher.

None of these problems are simple, but the cool thing about a study like this is that, for every classroom we see in which it doesn’t quite all go right, we see another one where it’s just amazing. A big part of the goal of the study I’m participating in, with an amazing group of colleagues, is to find what works in one teacher’s class and share it with other teachers. No direct transplant is possible, because every class is different, but the underlying themes and ideas can help to inform a teacher’s professional judgement as s/he thinks about how to improve what happens in the classroom.

All the teachers we’ve interviewed (on some earlier trips) value the students and learning and aspire to be the best teachers they can be and help their students achieve success in school and life. If we can equip them with some better strategies and approaches, that’s probably useful.

Here are a few themes that I’ve observed in classrooms that would help to enhance learning. I’ll try to unpack them a little bit, but obviously none of them are simple – or easy to implement in a busy, diverse classroom:

  • forward momentum – not rush, but in the best lessons there’s a drive on toward the next thing to be done and learned, rather than a sense of aimlessness. The students know there’ll be something along soon so they’d better get on with it.
  • explicit expectations – in the best lessons there’s no ‘do this, but I won’t tell you why’ or ‘guess what’s in my head, and if you get it wrong I’ll yell at you’. What the teacher expects – both in terms of behaviour and learning – is made clear and explicit for the students.
  • focus on learning – it’s ironic how easy it is, in school, to lose focus on the learning. There are so many other activities involved in ‘doing school’ that sometimes learning slips off the radar a bit. In the best lessons, it’s clear that students are here to learn, and that the teacher knows what is to be learned and how to check that it has been.
  • behaviour management in the service of learning – this is a similar point, but an important one. The management of behaviour – what used to be called ‘discipline’ – is a not a goal in itself. Behaviour is managed in the service of learning, and this principle will change the ways in which that happens. Of course, learning to behave well and do the right thing is also important, but it can’t be the main goal in the classroom.
  • engaging the disengaged – some of the students make the choice not to work. In the best classes, they don’t get away with it. I used to struggle with this one, because I’m all about allowing students to choose… but (some) adolescents aren’t mature enough to make good decisions about this. The teachers who are aware of what everyone is doing and can gently engage those students are the ones who are meeting the goal of challenging all students to succeed.
  • enhancing autonomy – students have very little choice about what happens in school. That includes both the rules in the classroom and what (and how) they’ll learn. Most of the examples we did hear about were things like whether or not to have music playing in the room while they work. Deeper forms of autonomy where they make real choices about how to learn would actually also help maintain forward momentum. (And this point doesn’t really contradict the previous one: they need scaffolding and support to make good decisions.)

There’s a companion piece to this post that I’ll write tomorrow that goes a little more deeply into what we’re up to: there are layers within layers and wheels within wheels.