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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Abstracts

Embedding comprehension within reading acquisition processes

Volume 33 Number 2, June 2010; Pages 87–107
Janet Scull

Decoding and comprehension are closely related aspects of reading. A study has examined how skilled Reading Recovery teachers combined these two aspects of reading acquisition during their interactions with struggling readers. The study examined each teacher's work with two individual students. The 16 students, eights boys and eight girls, were aged six to seven. The researchers observed the teacher–student discussions, coding results to identify quantifiable patterns. The teachers guided the students before, during and after the readings, in a number of ways. They modelled linking and prediction strategies, preparing students to apply them independently in future. The modelling took place in collaborative discussion with the student, helping students grasp 'the how and why of specific activities'. The ability to perform such modelling is grounded in the teacher's self-awareness of their own thinking. At times the teachers engaged in explicit strategy instruction. This metacognitive approach is widely recognised as helping students to direct their own learning in the future, although it should also be noted that such awareness in students often 'lags considerably behind success in action, with children often knowing more than they can tell'. In their discussions with students the teachers drew out and developed students' knowledge of concepts present in the texts. They introduced new ideas and alternative approaches to issues in the texts. They also 'pressed' or challenged students to explain, expand or reformulate their thoughts, and to locate more than one meaning in a text. The study found that learner–teacher interactions were central in allowing struggling readers to break through to proficient independent reading. The approach used in Reading Recovery may therefore be useful to apply more generally in early years' reading instruction, and has potential to assist students who decipher words accurately but are poor in comprehension. More generally, evidence from reading research indicates that teachers should resist 'persistent and simplistic binaries' in reading instruction, such as decoding vs comprehension and learning to read versus reading to learn.

KLA

Subject Headings

Primary education
Reading
Teaching and learning

Laser focus on content strengthens teacher teams

Volume 31 Number 5, October 2011; Pages 18–22
David Slavit, Tamara Holmlund Nelson, Anne Kennedy

PRiSSM was a three-year project covering middle- and high-school maths and science at 22 schools in the USA. One maths teacher and one science teacher from each school took part. Academic facilitators trained them to lead professional learning communities covering maths and science content at their schools. Participating teachers held monthly meetings of their learning community and were supported by a team of facilitators, summer institutes and job-embedded community learning time. Participating teachers were powerfully motivated and committed to the program in cases where they were able to define the focus of inquiry for their professional learning community, based on their judgement of their students' needs. In many cases this led to improvements in student learning. However, where the teachers' goals were not well-aligned to the established priorities of the wider education system, teachers sometimes felt that the work of their learning communities was undermined or distorted. Principals often played a very helpful role in resolving these tensions. For the first year of the project the learning communities covered both maths and science departments in the schools. This arrangement served to deepen links between departments, but discussions of subject content were found to be too general. In the second and third years most schools moved to single-subject learning communities which developed richer subject content. The communities were sometimes frustrated by teacher leaders' limited skills in using student data for research: they found it hard to ask the right questions and, as a consequence, some groups were stalled for significant periods. To sustain learning communities of this kind it is crucial that school-level teacher leaders are trained well enough to work with data for research purposes.

Key Learning Areas

Science
Mathematics

Subject Headings

Middle schooling
Secondary education
Mathematics teaching
Science teaching
Professional development
Teaching and learning

Principals + algebra (-fear) = instructional leadership

Volume 31 Number 5, October 2010; Pages 30–33
Cynthia L Carver, Michael Steele, Beth Herbel-Eisenmann

A group of secondary school principals in the USA took part in an intensive eight-week course to improve their ability to lead instruction of middle years' algebra in their schools. Most of the participants did not have backgrounds in mathematics. The academic leaders of the course focused on three key ideas: algebra understood as the study of patterns and functions, the development of algebraic reasoning through cognitively demanding tasks, and the ability to represent an algebraic concept in a range of ways. They led participants through problem-solving techniques, instructional practices, unfamiliar instructional resources, and relevant terminology. Participants deepened their understanding of system standards linked to middle years' content. One of the most important aspects of the course was in exposing participants to problem-solving approaches to learning. Under these approaches students perform carefully chosen, cognitively demanding tasks, with ample time to consider and discuss them. The teacher complements these student activities with questions that bring out the mathematical ideas embedded in the tasks. The participants emerged better equipped to lead algebra instruction. They later reported that they were spending more time observing algebra classes and discussing their observations with teachers. The discussions were likely to be longer and richer in content than in the past. They were now seeking evidence of more sustained discussion between students and teachers in classes, rather than witnessing teachers simply taking their students through a set of procedural steps. The participants said that they were now more able to relate to the experiences of students learning the subject. To be effective as instructional leaders, principals need 'a deep and flexible understanding' of at least one subject area.

Key Learning Areas

Mathematics

Subject Headings

School principals
Secondary education
Middle schooling
Mathematics teaching

Media education without tears

Number 57,  2010; Pages 51–61
Lee Burton

Traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, and comics can be used in the classroom to improve children’s literacy and critical literacy, to encourage students’ initiative and sense of agency, and to engage students more deeply in their learning. The article suggests activities involving traditional media for students in years 5 to 8. Through these activities students can explore how the media represents reality, how social values are transmitted and how media is made. There are several important concepts in media education. Media creates representations of people, ideas and facts. These representations may not resemble reality, even if they purport to, and they are greatly influenced by cultural context and the type of media they appear in. The media also has its own language using codes and conventions. Codes may be technical, symbolic or written; they cover camera techniques, lighting and exposure, objects, setting, body language, headlines, captions, and language style. Media messages also convey values and beliefs: consistent and recurring themes in media, for example the idea that violence works in solving problems, can contribute to the creation of a value system. Most media is owned and run as businesses and are required to make a profit. It is these commercial media that are used by most people as they produce the main messages. This fact makes it difficult for independent and government-owned media to attract large audiences, since most people are ‘habituated to the undemanding content and style’ of commercial media. People actively interpret media messages, based on their own needs, existing beliefs and value systems and cultural and social domain. Students too will have individual interpretations of media messages, which can be brought out in class discussion. The article provides a break down of learning activities for years 5–6 and years 7–8. The article also offers detailed suggestions for particular classroom activities. One covers critical examination of newspaper articles, and the social stereotypes appearing in them, while another involves students in creating a comic. A follow-up article will cover years K-4.

KLA

Subject Headings

Middle schooling
Primary education
Social life and customs
Mass media study and teaching

School size and student outcomes in ACT public schools: a catalyst for further investigation and discussion

Number 117, September 2010; Pages 1–10
Jim Watterston

The relationship between student outcomes and school size has been examined in a study based in the ACT. The author describes findings from the study and also draws on his personal experiences as a principal of a small rural school and then principal of one of the largest primary schools in Australia. There are advantages particular to both small and large schools. Smaller schools feel more personal and intimate. Supporters of small schools say that more attention can be given to students on an individual level and, as a result, they feel more valued. The rationale for large schools is that they generally provide more curriculum choice and subject specialisation. Research to date has not identified a clear link between student achievement and school size. The majority of research is qualitative rather than quantitative, making it difficult to generalise findings to other contexts. There are other factors that impact on student outcomes, such as the socioeconomic status of a school, which can obscure the impact of school size. The ACT Department of Education and Training conducted a review of student performance trend data, derived from national testing of public primary schools in the ACT, and how it relates to school size. The review examined 2008 and 2009 NAPLAN tests results. It found that Year 3 and Year 5 students in medium and large primary schools performed significantly better than those in small schools. The review also found that the average ICSEA score for small schools was lower than that for medium and large schools. This result 'could be interpreted to indicate' the influence of SES on results. Further investigation is needed to assess whether these results are similar in other Australian jurisdictions and what effect other variables, such as socioeconomic status, have on student achievement.

KLA

Subject Headings

Schools
School enrolment levels
School culture
School and community
Educational evaluation

Five hallmarks of good homework

September 2010; Pages 10–15
Cathy Vatterott

The author presents five fundamental characteristics of good homework tasks. The first characteristic is a clear academic purpose. Homework aims to reinforce learning, and traditionally this has been achieved through tasks based on rote learning and repetition, but it is usually more effective to set tasks that deepen students' understanding of content. For example, spelling homework often calls for the rote memory task of writing the words out ten times. Instead students could be allowed to choose their own way to memorise spelling, which may involve more creative tasks such as preparing a word puzzle. To take another example, vocabulary may be better learnt by calling on students to use words in context rather than by writing out definitions. The second characteristic is that the task efficiently demonstrates student learning. Some tasks may be time-consuming and not really show what the student knows. The author provides alternatives to the traditional 'build a model or diorama' tasks, such as writing a diary entry as a person from a time in history. Thirdly, the task should promote ownership by offering choices and being personally relevant. By giving students options of topics and how they would like to present their work, the meaning of what they are learning becomes more personal. The fourth characteristic is that the task instils a sense of competence. Homework must be doable in order for students to feel competent in completing the work. The author suggests teachers differentiate assignments to achieve this, for example varying the workload or providing hint sheets. The final characteristic is aesthetic appeal. Students will always be more motivated to do homework that is visually appealing. However, learning shouldn't be compromised in order to create attractive tasks. Students should feel that they can ask their teacher for help when they find their homework a struggle.

KLA

Subject Headings

Homework
Thought and thinking

Seeing the light

September 2010; Pages 22–25
Charlotte Seago

A Year 9 science teacher explains how he changed his teaching approach, to equip his students with the skills in independent research and analysis they would be likely to need in their future working lives. In the past, the teacher would explain a scientific theory and then have the students carry an experiment that illustrated the theory. Under his revised approach, students were given only the title of a topic and asked to conduct an experiment and record their results, without having been given any indication of the expected outcome. Students were then required to report on their results and discuss them with other students. Having achieved their results from the experiment students were then able to draw their conclusions mostly unassisted, which gave them a sense of accomplishment at having worked the theory out for themselves. The students’ confidence grew using this changed teaching approach and they were able to carry out further experimental tasks on their own. However, students found this inquiry-based approach challenging in some respects: for example, they hesitated in recording a result for fear of it being a ‘wrong answer’. In an attempt to address the students’ fears the author talked to them about how experimental errors are something to be expected in science and that part of the process is coming up with explanations of why the errors may have occurred. As they adapted to the new approach, students often chose different students to work with, helping to establish new bonds across established friendship groups. Inquiry-based learning should be introduced in gradual steps, to allows students to adjust to it.

Key Learning Areas

Science

Subject Headings

Science teaching

Beyond one right answer

September 2010; Pages 29–32
Marian Small

Differentiating instruction in maths classes helps to meet the needs of a wide range of students in primary and middle years. One useful way to differentiate instruction is through the use of open questions. There are four strategies for creating open questions. One is 'start with the answer', for example, state a number and ask for an example of what numbers would add up to it. A second is 'ask for similarities and differences', for example, how are two particular numbers similar or different. A third is 'allow choice in the data provided', for example, allow students to decide the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle, as a starting point for further work. The fourth strategy is to ask students to create a sentence using particular mathematical terms. An open question is broad enough to enable students of all levels to participate while engaging each of them in meaningful mathematics. Students' answers to open questions are likely to raise a wide range of issues, for example, place value. They also benefit by hearing different perspectives from other student's answers. Teachers may be concerned that open questions allow students to opt for easy, unchallenging answers. In practice this happens less than might be expected. If it does occur, the teacher can raise the challenge to a student through follow-up questions. A second way to differentiate instruction is through parallel tasks that present the same concept at various levels of difficulty. There are two strategies for creating parallel tasks. One is to let students choose between two problems. The other is to pose common questions that may be answered at different levels of sophistication. Differentiation in maths in this way allows all students to feel part of the larger community of learners and encourages richer discussion of mathematics.

Key Learning Areas

Mathematics

Subject Headings

Mathematics teaching

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