Monday, 29 April 2013

The Power of Positive

Sorry for the long hiatus folks. As you probably correctly guessed, the quiet coincided with the return to school. Good to know I'm working instead of blogging huh? ;)

Term 2 has gone, from my perspective, a lot more smoothly than Term 1 (surprise surprise). I think I was more prepared from a planning side and the obvious bonus was having a much better idea of what lay in store!

Aside: there is NO SUCH THING AS OVERPLANNING in teaching. I don't care what anyone says. No such thing.

Only one challenge has arisen which has really knocked me sideways. I got sick.

It was inevitable I guess: all those hours and lack of sleep and inability to eat properly + the change in the season and the high-risk environment of a school. Understandable that the flu eventually arrived. What I did not anticipate was how much feeling rotten would diminish my capacity for patience and positivity with my students. And you never know quite what you've got until its gone.

My fuse got short. My words got snappy. My grumpiness grew and my frustrations were palpable. As I've mentioned before, our students do not respond well to the grumps. At all! Loads and loads of infusing of firm positivity is the way to do it with this lot, so naturally my shorter fuse resulted in more antagonism, conflict and further grumps. Since I fell sick (and missed a couple of days) I've felt an eerie and disturbing sense of "whatever" and I know my students can smell it.

As if by divine intervention, this same period coincided with our introduction of a merit system at the school. We tried the intrinsic-motivation-appeal-to-your-better-sense-of-self stuff. It does NOT work on 14 year olds. So we went blatant: merit awards for doing stuff that is above-and-beyond or remarkable (teachers discretion). We decided NOT to introduce 'demerits' straight away: we wanted to see if we could build a positive system that was around incentivising the right behaviour rather than punishing all the time. So far so good! Man, what a merit can't do to promote a change in behaviour! Students gather up books and help in hopes of a merit. The naughtiest of students will try and behave in case they get a merit. A system I introduced today got more work out of my kids in an hour than normal: something along the lines of 'difficulty level' for questions in maths class to hurry them up through the simple stuff and get them chewing on the tougher material.

Level 1: Rookie. Everyone should do this. Everyone CAN do this. Get off your lazy bum and work.
Level 2: Pro. All of you should try. Getting up to this level should get you to pass maths. Just.
Level 3: Boss. A merit to anyone who can get all but one Boss-level question right. [I love writing on their merit slip "Reason: Doing algebra like a Boss"].
Level 4: Legend. Peeps who get level "Legend" right are a-away for a 70% if they work.
Level 5: Master. Only for those who should be able to get 80-90 for maths.

So the idea is that kids can actually say 'Miss, today i'm doing Maths like a Pro!" and feel good about it. It also sets a clear and obtainable "minimum expectation". The kids loved it! They came up with "Legend" and "Master". And all of a sudden, maths class became a game. Let's see how long it lasts...

What all of this did remind me (sickness, merits, level-ups) is the power of positivity. Really, there is no other explanation for it: something about our kids is wired into shutting out the negative and craving the positive in ways that is almost pathological. The challenge to us as staff, then, remains in keeping up our energy to stay positive.

The kids have asked for extra classes on Saturdays. I'm thrilled (and devastated)... it's wonderful they want them but man, really? More? That said, I canned last weekend because the little blighters hadn't done their homework and were unapologetic about it. So I told them I wasn't bending backwards if they couldn't be asked. Deep down I know really I won't stop, even when they are being lazy buggers... experience tells me that they come around eventually.

Meanwhile, I'll just keep trucking like a Boss. No Legend. Wait... Master. Yes :)

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Play the game

This post is predicated by a fascinating discussion in the conference today about game playing.

The research presented was some really useful work being done in remote areas of Australia where staff turnover is high, student attendance is very low and every teacher who rocks up changes stuff in order to 'make a difference' (cue: note to self on this one...)

Those schools that are functioning relatively well in this environment have begun adopting a discourse of 'the game' whereby they make the most simple actions and behaviours of going to school explicit to their students and communities as the rules of the game "Going to School" and then are consistent about those rules. For further information, read the paper here. It's really good.

This notion of game playing really resonates with me, but not in the way intended in the paper. Here are 3 examples of games I've encountered that are worth sharing.

Game 1
My own offering to today's conversation involved the most strange and alarming phenomenon that I first encountered at the school regarding my students' books.

For my students, the main function and attribute of their book was form: it must be neat, it must be beautiful, it must not have scratchings or incorrect answers or messy work or mistakes in it.

Rough work was done on ANY other available surface: torn out papers from homework diaries, toilet paper, the wall, the desk, you name it. Anywhere else except in the book.

So when I insisted that they show me their working inline they were--initially--horrified. "But Miss, that will mess up my book!" Or, even worse (lord forbid) I came around to check how they are doing and wanted to do an example with them together in their books so that they could watch good mathematics being modelled and retain the example for future reference...

"NO MISS NOT IN MY BOOK! NOT WITH RED PEN!" <thrusts a pencil into my hand>

The only red allowed in the book is a tick. A nice red tick. And if I don't provide it as timeously as the students want, they put it in themselves, irrespective of whether the work is right or not.


I was boggled. Bemused. And disturbed at the same time. Because there is only one place that my students could've learnt this particular ritual, and that was in their previous classroom.

What on earth could possibly conduce the teachers to only ever tick, or the students to never show their working and scratch around thus for any surface (including, might I add, themselves) on which to perform their calculations?

To economists my answer will seem obvious: incentives. The Rules of the Game manifest in different ways. There are the 'official' rules of the game. And then there are the real rules, the ones that the rewards, penalties and pressures incentivize. The Rules of the Game might 'officially' state that teachers need to check all their students books regularly. But if a teacher is being told that books will be randomly inspected by the visiting authorities and each sum must be marked, well the incentive is to do as few questions as possible to alleviate the assessment burden (any sane mathematics teacher will tell you it is nigh on impossible to assess every question that every student ever does. That's where self-assessment comes in).

Also to alleviate the burden of marking, we go old-school: ticks and crosses against the final answer only. Working, misconceptions, the process of calculation count for nothing. Only the answer. *tick*.

The result is a charade: a dance of shadows where teachers act out something they call 'teaching' and students act out something they call 'learning'. Learner copies off the board and then waits. Teacher comes along and goes 'tick'. Inspector comes along and goes 'very good! Beautiful books'. Teacher smiles. Student smiles.

Nothing approximating the igniting of mathematical understanding has happened at all.

Game 2

Another interesting example of the Game. Who would've thought that a potential explanation for principals admitting students into their already over-full schools could be linked to salary scales?

Size of school -> Principal's payscale.

So here we have a payscale system that is trying to acknowledge those principals who are running schools of 1200 kids and that what they do is harder than running a school of, say, 300 kids. And that's fair enough. But the distorted behaviour that manifests is profound.

Game 3

The final interesting example comes down to advisor visits. I was really not very happy about my advisor visits (euphemism of the millenium). I was particularly not happy about being made to sign their report to acknowledge they had 'advised' me. They came on a day when I had no free time to chat with them, at a time when I was teaching all day, with no room for negotiation. They arrived late and then were frustrated when they had to leave late.

[It should be added that this rather rushed engagement was the result of a slightly tense interaction in which many emails over a period of about 5 weeks requesting an amicable visit went unanswered. I think they got upset when we contacted the powers-that-be and asked why we were not getting any responses to our requests for help.]

No effort was made to engage with what I have tried to do for remedial interventions with the students. The interventions were just 'me going off curriculum'. They poured over my files while I was in class and then I kind of got it with both barrels about 'not sticking to the pace-setter'. My protests of the students' weakness and knowledge gaps were met with the response "That doesn't matter. You must stick to the pace setter. These kids will keep you behind if you give them half a chance".

Give them half the chance? Perhaps them not getting half a chance might explain why they are in such a pickle in the first place? I'm not joking here: on the notes they gave to me they have literally written "do not let "don't understand" get in the way". I've been officially instructed to not worry if my students don't get it.

At this point in the hurried meeting I really was restraining my desperate urge to either pack up laughing hysterically or punch someone in the face.

But off we set on this game. They talked at me, s-l-o-w-l-y, showing me in monosyllabic terms the most unpedagogically sound mechanisms for teaching fractions I have ever seen, assuming that I didn't know how to teach this level of mathematics. I nodded, steam coming out of my ears, wishing they would go away or make an effort to get to know what I've done, what I can do and what I'm trying to do and actually advise me. No such luck. We just played the game. The Box-Ticking Game. Educator X has been 'corrected' and has been made to sign a document stating as much. School Y has been visited and can be ticked on the list. We've done our jobs here. This school is now 'right'.

I think it was John Maynard Keynes who said something about creating employment by paying people to dig holes and paying other people to fill them in again. This really sums up to me what our education system currently is. One very large, elaborate, expensive charade, a game to keep a few hundred thousand people employed. Which it does very well. But in the immortal words of Blackadder, there's only one teeny tiny problem....

It was bollocks.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The difference between theory and practice is...

...that in theory there is no difference and in practice there is!

In about an hour I'm heading off to Seapoint to register for the 7th Mathematics Education in Society conference where I'll be presenting my Masters work and getting the opportunity to gather opinions and insights from people whose work I've been following for 5 years now. I'm rather excited!

More importantly, I've just reread the (very short! damn word count limits!) summary of my work I submitted ages ago as my conference application. I can't say I'm happy with it, but it was a furious click-send-at-23:59 submission so I shouldn't be surprised.

For those unaware, my Masters thesis is about teachers beliefs about mathematics teaching and language and how these things interact in the classroom. I'll do a follow up post about why very few South African children learn in their mother tongue and what implications research is showing from this (I'll delve into some of Neville Alexander's writing on language and political and educational emancipation to illustrate the point in said forth-coming blog. The topic deserves tomes of its own). Suffice to say for now, there is a very strong correlation between mathematics attainment and language of teaching and learning in SA. Of course, language of teaching and learning also proxies for many other variables that are known to have an effect on students' mathematical attainment, such as socio-economic circumstances, access to physical resources such as solid schools, textbooks and ICT equipment, access to human resources such as well-trained teachers etc. and this all comes saddled with the moribund gamut that is South African political and social history. But there's definitely something to the language variable on its own: across the world, students who learn in their home language learn better. It seems an obvious thing to say, but you'd be surprised at how controversial it is.

So I spent a month in a very rural school up in the Eastern Cape observing teachers and chatting to them about their thoughts about the role of language in their classrooms. Unsurprisingly, they didn't think it mattered much, and this is not an uncommon response. People think mathematics is symbols and numbers... the least language-dependent of the subjects. Not at all. Firstly mathematics is often described as a language itself. Choose a random textbook off the shelf and turn to the introduction. 10:1 says the first paragraph mentions something like "Mathematics is a language that... " or "Mathematics is the language which...". And like all languages, you learn what the NEW word/symbol/signifier means IN YOUR OWN LANGUAGE so that you can translate: attach meaning to the new squiggle on the page in terms you already know. What does "<" mean? What does "!" mean? How do we use the word "any" in mathematics and how is it different to the way we use it in the super market? Never mind overloaded terms such as "element" or "power". And then there's the discourse: how we talk mathematics. The way we rationalize our responses, structure logical arguments. A lovely example is Goldbach's conjecture (I had to look that one up because I always get it confused with Riemann's hypothesis. Oh well...). Goldbach's conjecture is still unsolved and is very easily stated. Something like this:

Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes.

Simple huh? But every word is used in a mathematical way. The word "every". The word "expressed". The word "prime". Mastering such overloaded lexica AS WELL AS the style/register of mathematics is difficult enough in your own language, never mind a second language, and certainly not in a language that is--for all intensive purposes--foreign. 

So when our children are learning mathematics in English but they speak isiXhosa 90% of the time, well, making real meaning is very difficult. This combines with rote learning, teachers who are unconfident of their subject content knowledge and little linguistic resources to use to acquire English in order to acquire mathematics. The textbooks are in English. The exams are in English. And a kid who gets a question like "b) Hence, determine the roots of the new equation if p=0" ... well, you can guess what happens.

But I'm not happy with my conference submission for a couple of reasons:

In particular, the crappy word count doesn't give space to unpack and explore problematic terms such as "rural" or "poorly trained" teachers. When I describe the village as "homogenously isiXhosa speaking", well, it doesn't feel quite right: such a whopping big generalization is not au fait in academia. Grr... now I'll have to waste 5 of my 10 minutes of presentation time sounding defensive while I qualify what I meant when I wrote that near-midnight-rushed-submission. I promise the quality of the work is better than the submission! Promise!

Meantime, here's hoping I'll get to really chew the fat over some of the things troubling me about the research. Like validity issues around measuring and studying beliefs (ouch!).

One positive thing though. My work in my new school over the last 3 months has confirmed the major trajectory of the research. What teachers believe about their work is one of the core fundamental variables in determining what they are willing to try and how they are willing to change their practice. And effecting change in teacher practice is probably the single biggest thing we can do to improve our rather defunct education system. Connecting theory with practice! Here's hoping that comes through in the conference...