Unteachable kids Part 4: Planning the reading

piles-of-books-in-a-private-college-library_www-luxurywallpapers-net_-960x540In response to my last post, Lady Magpie wrote

I’d be curious about how the readings would work – how much choice there would be, how I’d be introduced to different reading options, how the readings would be “paced”, and what incentives would be in place to keep me reading (i.e. how the readings would be used in the course. I hate when readings are either completely ignored OR completely rehashed in the lectures, making me feel like reading them was a waste of time in either case).

I’ve been playing with this for the past hour or so. I want there to be some compulsory readings, to give us some common language and specific ideas to discuss, but also lots of choice so that the students are able to explore the Central Provocation and their thoughts about their chosen subject X in ways that make sense to them. I know how flat I feel as a student when someone tells me to explore an interesting idea but then tell me I must follow a pre-determined path. It doesn’t feel like an exploration at all;  just a dutiful trudging down a known and over-used path.

Deciding on the compulsory readings  is something of a challenge though. The students will be asked to buy a number of textbooks for their whole M.Teach course, and given that they will have forked out lots of dollars for these textbooks, I feel obliged to use them. This is a problem for a unit constructed along the lines I’ve outlined, because the tone in the both of the textbooks is of the research-informed expert telling us how things are. I know I’m in the minority here, but I’m not a big fan of this tone. The tone is meant to instil confidence in the reader (‘Wow, here is some evidenced-based scholarship that is giving me grounded advice on what works in teaching?’). It doesn’t have that effect on me. These textbooks (and one of them in particular) present the (often sound) ideas as unquestionable truths, shutting down inquiry rather than opening it up. For example, at the beginning of a chapter on the learning styles, the authors say that ‘there is not any recognised evidence suggesting that knowing or diagnosing learning styles will help you to teach your students any better’. They dismiss the idea rather than invite us to think about it critically.

Nevertheless, I’m obliged to use the textbooks in some way. So here’s what I’m thinking (and it’s a modification of what I wrote in Part 3).

I’ve abandoned, by the way, my original idea that I’d have specific readings for specific topics/learning outcomes. The mandated topics (classroom management, social/physical/intellectual development, literacy & numeracy, effective feedback etc) are all so interconnected that none of the readings looks at just one; each reading covers a number of them.

Compulsory readings

(each to be followed by an online quiz (rather than test) which requires students to demonstrate that they understand what they’ve read, that they’ve critically thought about it in relation to the Central Provocation and their project with chosen student X)

Week 2: Hattie & Yates Visible learning and the science of how we learn, chapters 1,3,&13 (about 30 pages altogether) – 4 marks

Week 3: Krause Ch 12 ‘Managing behaviour and  classrooms’ in Educational psychology for learning and teaching. – 4 marks

Week 4 Chapter 2 Killen Effective Teaching Strategies – 4 marks

Week 5: Chapter 6 Tovani Do I really have to teach reading? – 4 marks

Week 6: Comber and Kamler ‘Getting out of deficit: pedagogies of reconnection’

Student choice readings

(At least 5 need to be chosen and explicitly drawn on for the later assessments – which I want to rename –  in 11 and 15)

My e-reserve folder on classroom management, with 30 or more articles on various aspects of what Krause calls the the interventionist, the inter-activist and the non-interventionist models of classroom management.

Other parts of the Tovani book, which I’ll encourage students to buy, borrow or download)

Killen Effective Teaching Strategies Chapters 6-14

Relevant resources that the students find themselves


So ends my preliminary planning. I have a meeting next week where I’ll find out how much of this I’ll be allowed to do. In the meantime, can I say again what a pleasure, and how useful, it has been to be getting so much feedback on Facebook.

Hitting the ground running: first responses to this semester’s literacy unit

Yesterday we began our new unit for preservice secondary teachers, on literacy across the disciplines. In our Grad Dip tutorial, small groups discussed their initial impressions and recorded their thoughts under four headings.

Clarify: On what would students like more clarity?

Value: What are students liking about what they’re hearing and reading about this unit?

Concern: What are students feeling some level of concern about, given what they’ve read and heard about the unit?

Suggest: What suggestions do students have which might address some of their concerns?

I promised to report and respond by the end of the week, so here I go:





Q: Can we have more details about the Literacy Project? When is it due? What does it involve? How is it to be presented?

A: I’m working on an online lecture about the Literacy Project which will address all these questions. I plan to have it posted by the end of the week. If you have any questions once you’ve watched/read the online lecture, or if you’d just like to chat about your ideas for your project, please send me an email so we can make an appointment on Monday during the Drop In time (3-6), or on Thursday afternoon.

Q: What definition of literacy are we working with in this unit? Is it just reading and writing?

A: I began the lecture with a story, rather than with a definition. Josh was struggling with the text in front of him. In his case, it was Macbeth, but there are students in every KLA classroom who struggle to find meaning from the texts in their subject. Some of these texts are word-based; some involve images, plans, maps, tables, recipes and so on. Many involve a mixture of these, and can be paper-based or electronic. Our unit is about helping students find meaning from all the texts relevant to a particular KLA. I’m wanting you to identify the types of texts and literacy (the ability to read and write texts) which your KLA values, and to learn strategies for teaching these relevant literacies to those students who struggle.
One of our Grad Dip students has already begun this exploration, in her KLA of Science, in a post called Return to the Grad Dip: Teaching Literacy.

 Q: Will we learn specific teaching strategies and approaches?

A: The textbook is full of them. We’ll model and practise others in our tutorials. The e-Reserve has articles on others.

Q: Why are the tutorials not organised along KLA lines?

A: We have a lot to learn from our colleagues in different KLAs. Why does a student who creates havoc in one subject behave like an angel in another? Could it be that the student finds one set of literacies inaccessible and acts out in order to divert attention from feelings of inadequacy? If this at least part of the explanation, perhaps we can learn ways to adapt some of the strategies and literacies of our colleagues from other KLAs? You might find the following video – Teaching spreadsheets though street dance –  interesting.

Q: Are we going to learn about things that hinder literacy (eg dyslexia)?

A: RINE is going to open some doors here, as will SCPE and CPP3. But if you’d like to learn more about a specific issue like dyslexia, then construct your Literacy Project and your weekly reading around the issue. Previous students have done wonderful work along these lines.

Q: How much reading and writing should we be doing each week?

A: The unit (like all university units) is based on the assumption that you’ll spend around 10 hours per week, including lectures, tutorials, workshops and so on. Every week on Moodle I’ll post guidelines and suggestions for your reading and writing, but I want you to be making the decisions about what reading and what writing will be most useful to you. Delve deeply into the aspects of the unit which most engage you, and/or will be most useful to you become the kind of teacher you want to become.

Q: Where will online lectures and the weekly program be posted?

A: On Moodle, in the ELPC G2/LAD section, under the relevant week. (Let Valerie Barker know if it’s at all difficult to find; we want to make these things easily accessible to you.)

Q: Where can we find more details about Assignments 3 and 4?

A: There is information about these in the Unit Outlines and on Moodle (in the Assessment box). After you’ve read these, I’m more than happy for you to make an appointment with me (Monday or Thursday afternoons) to discuss possibilities and idea (email me or Rachel to make a time).
My office, by the way, has posters (Assignment 4) from last year all around the walls.

Q: The Grad Dip Unit Outline mentions a Student Led Mini-Conference. What’s this about?

A: Last year a group of Grad Dip students planned a mini-conference where the Assignment 4 posters were displayed, past students were invited to share their experiences of their first year out, and various other celebrations took place. Later in the semester we’ll be calling for volunteers from this year’s cohort to organise this year’s mini-conference.



2.    VALUE




The things students mentioned as being of value to them included

  • emphasis on literacy in general and KLA specific literacies in particular
  • opportunity to learn new skills and strategies to help struggling students
  • the modelling of the staff, the clarity of the communications (online, in tutorials and in the Unit Outline)
  • the structure of the tutorials, time to work with others and establish a sense of smaller communities of learners
  • the link made between behaviour management and literacy
  • the support structures for students, and the role Valerie is taking as triage person
  • the way e-Reserve is structured, and the flexibility of choosing what to read
  • the integration between the units and the integrated assessment
  • Steve’s example of Josh in the lecture
  • moving the Drop In to Mondays, and the later time slot
  • having online materials posted on time




The things students mentioned as being of concern to them included

  • literacy is a primary school, not a secondary school, issue
  • expensive text books, and the late notice given about this
  • 70% weighting for Assignment 3
  • part-timers having to do Assignment 3 for a second time
  • unrealistically heavy workload expectations, and the pressure of fitting it all into 9 weeks
  • the lack of fast, direct communication with students
  • the lack of notice about Week 1 required reading and preparation
  • the possibility that working in the same tutorial groups for 9 weeks would become monotonous
  • Ning and Moodle being difficult to navigate
  • the lack of usesful KLA information in the lectures/tutorials
  • little or no guidance as to what was the essential part of the unit
  • the lack of clarity about TQI registration process
  • lack of specific help for LOTE teachers who will have students whose English is poor
  • too few live lectures (online not as effective)
  • the Boiler Room as a lecture space





The things students suggested arising out of some of the concerns included

  • consistency across unit outlines
  • Moodle and Ning demonstrations on where to find the relevant information
  • sharing past Literacy Projects and posters
  • online readings rather than textbooks
  • more support from Academic Mentors during prac
  • clearer outline of expectations and outcomes
  • return to the wiki
  • fewer discussions in tutorials
  • a whole course discussion forum on the Ning [ed: there is one]
  • more information on the Literacy Project
  • looking at multiple literacies
  • more feedback on assignments
  • spread the lectures and tutes over multiple days (exhausted by Tuesday program)
  • establish clear method of communication when we’re on prac
  • more LOTE articles on e-Reserve
  • information about literacy programs going on outside uni (eg Tactical Teaching)
  • podcast responding to questions about assignments
  • better communication between workshop tutors and lecturers
  • KLA specific literacies
  • more formative assessment to gauge learning
  • demonstration from lecturers of strategies explored in the unit
  • more application in a practical classroom environment
  • how to craft inquiry  questions to guide reading
  • more colours, pictures, graphs to make texts more accessible
  • have weekly readings and tasks posted earlier

Some thoughts on the concerns and suggestions

I hope that what I’ve written in the Clarify section has helped with some of these.

If you’re feeling that one of your concerns or suggestions has not been responded to adequately, please make a time to come and see me. Talking through an issue almost always works better than just writing about it. To make an appointment (during either Monday or Thursday afternoons), email me and we’ll set up a time.

“Don’t we learn to teach on the job? What’s the point of theory?” A post for my students

An introductory video

The story

‘Didn’t I ask you to read the paragraph and then respond to the stimulus question?’ I asked the blond-haired boy in desk at the back of the room.

This was my first year of teaching English, and this day (somewhere into week 3) was the first lesson with my Year 8 class when I’d felt that at least most of the class were engaged in the task I’d set them.

But not Andrew.

He slowly turned his head as I spoke, and looked calmly and challengingly at my face. He didn’t say anything.

‘Andrew, didn’t I ask everyone to read the paragraph and respond …’ For some reason, I could feel the confidence draining out of me.

‘Mmm. Let’s see,’ he finally said slowly. ‘Yes, I think you did say something along those lines.’

The casual way he tossed this back at me was confusing. So were the feelings of anger welling up inside me. How dare he speak to me like that! What was going on here?

‘So?’ I said.

‘So?’ he replied.

‘So do it!’ I said, struggling to stop myself from shouting.

He smiled and picked up his pen, then held it up as if saying, ‘Here’s the pen. See, I’ve picked it up, and I’m now going to write some meaningless words in order to show you what a pointless exercise this whole thing is.’

I walked away from the desk, feeling utterly defeated.  Why couldn’t he see that I didn’t want him to be doing meaningless work? What was going on in this exchange that had left me feeling so weak?

It’s now forty years since that exchange, yet I still remember the boy and I still remember the feelings of helplessness I felt on that day, and on subsequent days, as I struggled to control my urge to win the battle with Andrew.

Moments like this one help force us to examine our assumptions. I entered that Year 8 classroom with a number of assumptions about students, about my subject, and about teaching, and not all of them were helping.

My assumptions included:

  1. I’m young and enthusiastic, and my enthusiasm will infect my students.
  2. Students need a classroom environment that is relaxed and friendly, where they can express themselves freely and explore ideas without fear of ridicule.
  3. If a student is not responding to what I’m teaching, there’s a reason for it, and trying to see things from the student’s point of view is going to help.
  4. I need to be flexible and responsive in my teaching.
  5. Students like to succeed, and if I show them how, then they’ll work hard.
  6. Teachers generally talk too much.

Looking back now, I can see where some of these assumptions came from. When I was at school, I was bored by teachers who talked too much, and at university I fell asleep in lectures (until I stopped going to them). If I was given the freedom to explore things in my own way, I loved learning and worked hard.

There was another reason why I assumed that, if I took an interest in my student, then they would respond. At the age of 10 I was sent by my parents to boarding school. My father was a diplomat, he was regularly posted overseas, and my parents believed that I needed to be brought up in my native country and that my schooling needed ongoing stability. To begin with I hated it, and found the teachers distant and their teaching uninspiring. But then, as I entered my later secondary years at the boarding school, I was taught by teachers who seemed interested in my ideas and development, who loved their subjects, and who thought deeply about education. I responded immediately to these teachers, and assumed that all students would respond like this, given the right circumstances.

Of course I didn’t articulate these assumptions at the time. I was not really aware that I had them. It was only after my tangle with Andrew that I began to began to see that my asssumptions were inadequate.

Andrew’s quiet, successful rebellion continued, and it continued to get under my skin. I tried different tacks – chatting with him about things that had nothing to do with school, ignoring him, threatening him with school punishments, keeping him in at lunch time – but he continued to quietly undermine my confidence, my sense that I had any legitimate authority.

One day I wrote a long letter to my aunt, who was a teacher herself and was now working as a teacher trainer, telling her of my struggles with Andrew, and asking her advice. She sent me a book and suggested I read a chapter from it, and encouraged me to write or ring her to talk through the issue.

The book was by Rudolf Dreikurs, and was called Psychology in the Classroom. That night, I read the chapter recommended by my aunt.

Rudolf Dreikurs

Dreikurs suggested that all student behavior had a purpose, that it was all aimed at gaining some sense of belonging or connection, but that some students pursued this in irrational ways in the mistaken belief that their behaviour would result in them achieving the acceptance they yearned for.

At first, I found this confusing. If Andrew was wanting to belong, why was he going about it in ways that not only angered me but also seemed to alienate him from many of his classmates? But then I realized that in fact he had earned some kind of respect or recognition from those around him; his classmates could see that he held some kind of power, that he knew how to undermine authority.

I read on.

Dreikurs looked at those students whose behaviour was in some ways troubling, and suggested that these students fell into four categories. There were those students who attempted to achieve recognition by attention seeking. There were those who continually displayed feelings of inadequacy. There were those who were motivated by feelings of revenge. And there were those who challenged the teacher’s power.

I read the chapter several times. I did this not because I was going to be tested on it, not because I was going to do an academic assignment and needed to demonstrate that I was ‘keeping up to date with the research’.I did it because my previous thinking was inadequate and I was experienced distress as a result. I was reading it to help me to solve a real problem in the real world.

As I read, I kept looking to see what Dreikurs might say about a student like Andrew At first it seemed to me that Andrew fitted into at least three of the four categories. But the one that resonated the most was the last.

Andrew had sucked me into a power struggle.

I remember, still, the moment I read a sentence which said something like this:

The moment the teacher engages with the power struggle, the teacher has lost.

Dreikurs had concrete advice about what to do in situations like this one. I followed the advice, and my relationship with Andrew changed markedly. He did all right in that class, and I survived.


All of that happened in my first year of teaching, exactly forty years ago. I’ve still got the book, and my teaching was permanently affected by what I read in it, and by what happened with Andrew.

Dreikurs helped to free me from the limitations of some of my assumptions. His ideas helped me to survive the challenges of those early years, and gave me ways of being more effective with students like Andrew.

Dreikurs was no a panacea, of course. He helped then, but he didn’t help with other students and other situations. I continue to find aspects my assumptions about teaching and learning inadequate. I continue to have to learn and adjust.

But his theories helped, as do all good theories, whether they come in books, lectures, conversations with more experienced colleagues or our own flashes of insight.

No theory is universally true, always applicable, the solution to every problem. Yes, we learn on the job. But without theory, we remain relatively trapped by the inadequacy of our underdeveloped assumptions.

Fear, drive my feet: managing pre-course anxiety

I’m standing in front of a class of secondary students, sensing their restlessness and desperately trying to hold their attention. I’m pulling out every trick I’ve learned: cajoling one sub-group, trying to beguile a second with a story or an interesting fact, and threatening a third. But I feel weak and dreadfully underprepared; I don’t really know the content or where the lesson should be heading, and I can sense the students seeing through my bluff and bluster. They’re about to walk out, I’m convinced, or give up, or maybe even riot. I redouble my efforts, but I can see that I’m losing them and that nothing will rescue this hopeless situation.

[My dream last week.]

I’m now nearly 65 and have been working with students for over 40 years now. I’ve loved teaching and the academic job I’ve got at the moment. Yet I still have anxious nightmares before the beginning of every teaching year.

This underlying anxiety used to feel neurotic. Why would I have these dreams unless, underneath the surface, I felt insecure and unstable. I’ve come to think more recently that the dreams are healthy  and help motivate me so that I prepare well.

Because it’s fear rather than logic that’s driving my feet, my anxiety dreams trigger a process that is idiosyncratic and, in its early stages, not as immediately productive as it might be!

I can illustrate this by describing the five stages – familiar to me now – that I’ll go through between now and early February, when I meet the 200 students doing my Teacher Education unit on managing classroom.

Stage 1: Collecting resources

The logical place to begin would be to think about the purpose of the unit. What am I trying to achieve?

But that’s not where my underlying anxiety takes me.

Instead, with a kind of unconscious desperation, I collect my resources, scores of them, as if the more resources I have to throw at the students, the more prepared I’ll feel. I’m a bit like the warrior my son creates in his online game Skyrem. Before he goes into battle with an unknown enemy, he first gathers together an ebony dagger, an orcish battle axe, a dwarvish sword, full battle dress (including an invisibility shield) and various spells and potions. The more he collects, the more confident he feels.

I’ve taught this unit before, so I’ve already collected a fair few weapons. I revisited them this morning, and, like the pre-battle soldier polishing his weapons, I made a mindmap of them, trying (unsuccessfully) to resist the urge to keep adding to them as I went.

2. Imagining the resistances

The relief from my anxiety which this manic collecting affords is temporary.

I'd like to say that this is me, at my writing desk while I imagine Janine, Greg and my other future students. In fact it's a drawing of my hero Charles Dickens, imagining his various characters.

After making this mindmap this morning, I began to imagine characters, some of my future students, responding to the resources very much like the students in my nightmares. I could see  (for example) Janine, the student whose hard work and ability to play the game had got her top marks, being angry at the lack of guidance, at the assumption that she would have the time to wade through the resources and make independent decisions about which were relevant to her and which were not. I could see Greg, the practical down-to-earth student who had already decided that university learning was unconnected with the real world, and that he’d learn the job once he got into a classroom rather than by wading through an old man’s reading list. I could imagine conscientious Elizabeth, full of zeal and idealism about a new teaching career, quickly becoming overwhelmed with the mountain of stuff being thrown at her. And finally I could see Allan, happy to take seriously anything which immediately appealed to him as being interesting or useful, but more interested in talking about teaching than in reading about it. What would I say to them? How would I keep them engaged?

 Stage 3 Revisiting the aims of the unit

I hate Learning Outcomes and include them in my unit outlines only because they are compulsory. Here are the official Learning Outcomes for the unit I’m about to teach.

My unit's official Learning Outcomes

The spectre of the four resistant students forces me to think about purpose. What am I wanting to achieve in our 10 short weeks together?I understand the thinking behind Learning Outcomes (make the purpose explicit so students know what’s expected), but always find them lifeless and limiting, like trying to package a mystery in a formula. In this case I find them particularly useless because these Learning Outcomes spring out of a view about teaching as performance that tells only part of the story. Clear verbal and non-verbal directions and generic practical approaches and strategies are important, but they’re a fraction of what I’d want this unit to be about.

Here’s my list:

  1. Tolerating complexity: I want the students to know that there isn’t a single box of tricks, or a failsafe method of classroom management. There are different approaches that work with different teachers, different students and in different contexts.
  2. Embracing critical analysis and self-reflexivity: I want the students to examine their own assumptions about what works. The research says that many young teachers, once they get into the classroom, quickly revert to teaching styles that are familiar to them, based on the teaching styles of their former teachers and parents, and that these often result in the repetition of ineffective teaching practices. I want my students to understand and critically examine what comes naturally to them, and to begin the work of shaping a teacher-identity that is both authentic and effective. I want them to think about what they want to achieve in their classrooms. Is it just about control? How central is learning? What implications flow from what they value? What kind of a teacher do they aspire to be?
  3. Thinking holistically: I want them to see the important links between pedagogy, content knowledge and classroom management, rather than see these as unconnected components which need individual and separate attention and skills.
  4. Becoming creative and informed makers of meaning: I want them to notice the way our unit assumes that the learner (which is them!) is an active inquirer and meaning-maker rather than a passive recipient of the teacher’s wisdom and knowledge, and how this inquirer’s stance stimulates motivation and creativity … and then to reflect on what this means for the way they are going to run their classrooms. I want them to know that our profession requires this inquirer’s mentality for the whole of their professional lives.

Stage 4: Basing the unit around fertile questions

Yoram Harpaz

Yoram Harpaz suggests that our classrooms should become places of where communities of thinkers research fertile questions together. They define a fertile question as having six main characteristics:

  1. Open – there are several different or competing answers.
  2. Undermining – makes the learner question their basic assumptions.
  3. Rich – cannot be answered without careful and lengthy research. Usually able to be broken into subsidiary questions.
  4. Connected – relevant to the learners.
  5. Charged – has an ethical dimension
  6. Practical -is able to be researched given the available resources.

Here the work has been done for me, as last year our teaching team came up with the following fertile questions or Nine Provocations. These provocations form the basis of the teaching course within which my unit is situated.

  1. What kind of a teacher do I want to be?
  2. Will I be allowed to be the teacher I want to be?
  3. To whom am I accountable?
  4. Am I ready to teach?
  5. Is teaching a profession or a trade?
  6. What will students want and need from me?
  7. Should we teach students or subjects?
  8. To what extent is teaching an intellectual pursuit?
  9. How will I control my students?

Once I get to this fourth stage of articulating the central research questions, I begin to feel some of the anxious impulse to do all the work beginning to dissipate. I no longer feel I need to understand all the material, have all the answers, or accumulate a mountain of resources; I’m going to be guiding a community of researchers, not force-feeding my students with my own knowledge and experience. It’s not that I imagine that there will be no moments of challenge or discomfort with Janine, Greg, Elizabeth or  Allan. But I see my role more clearly now. The ground feels more secure.

Stage 5: Checking the alignment of assessment and objectives

Will my assessments give my students opportunities to show that they have tolerated complexity, embraced critical analysis and self-reflexivity, thought holistically, and become creative & informed makers of meaning?

I think so. We’re asking them to explore some of the Nine Provocations and to share the results of their explorations with us, using a number of different media. We’re requiring them to build their understanding on their critical analyses of their own and others’ experience and assumptions, gleaned from conversations, course work and time spent in the classroom. There are no short answer questions, no single mandated texts that they must study and master: they’re to pursue the questions that matter to them and to map the way their thinking evolves as a result of their labours.

My job, between now and the first class, is to make possible resources available, and to structure week-by-week events that will stimulate research and collaboration.

Perhaps, tonight, I’ll sleep more peacefully.