Differentiation – What is it? How does it work?

14 Nov

What is differentiation?

Many people believe that differentiation is simply that teachers need to recognise that students learn in different ways and that teachers need to provide different learning instructions to help students to learn.

However differentiation is recognising that classrooms are heterogenous or that classrooms have students of mixed abilities. For example, we will have students that have English as a second language or speak more than one dialect in their First or home languages. We may have students with special needs or students with learning difficulties. But we might also have gifted or talented students who may become easily bored with the learning materials. Carol Tomlinson advises us to not see students as a group but as individuals. It is to the individuals that we have to teach it to.

We must accept that every student in our classroom is an individual and we need to tailor instruction for the learning needs of every student. Students as individuals have varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning – ie some students are visual and some may be oral students. Differentiation does not mean we have to ‘dumb down’ the curriculum or the learning. Quite the opposite. Differentiation means that teachers have to provide learning experiences that have high expectations for our students.

So what is Differentiation? Differentiation is when we provide a learning experience that is engaging, motivating and challenging for every student. Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching and learning so that students have multiple options for taking in information and making sense of ideas.

If we were to teach a lesson about democracy, students would not just read about democracy in a text book. Teachers could use direct teaching to explain the concepts of democracy. We could watch a video on democracy. We could visit a town hall or we could invite a politician to visit the school to talk about democracy. In the classroom we could have class discussions or we could have role plays where ideals of democracy were discussed and debated. We could use computers in the classroom where students could use webspaces or visit democracy sites and answer questions on democracy.

There is no single method to differentiation. At the heart of differentiation is the belief that teaching approaches should vary and be adapted to individual and diverse students. But differentiation is also maximising each students growth and individual success. We need to recognise that each student is on a different level and assist students in their learning.

Differentiation could be using visuals or other teaching tools as computers. It could also be allowing more time for students to copy off the board. It could be talking slower for those students who may have hearing problems. It could be adjusting the classroom seating to allow students with eye problems to sit closer to the board. It could be repeating words or providing thesarus or dictionaries for ESL students. It could be adjusting worksheets for students with learning difficulties or providing challenging materials for gifted students.

What can we diffentiate?

Content or Presentation – how it is taught. We need to allow the students to access the content and understand the concepts, generalisations, principles, attitudes and skills. Teachers must focus on the broad based understanding of concepts, principles and skills that students should learn than the minute details.

Process – How it is done – Use flexible groupings where grouping is not fixed and where learners interact and work together as they develop knowledge of new content. Use flexible groupings so that students may be grouped with students of different learning abilities and perspectives.

Teachers can use whole class introductory discussion followed by small group or pair work. Use classroom management strategies as flexible or permanent seating. If your going to use group work, you need to work out what desk or seating you want for groups to sit in.

Products – How do Students demonstrate knowledge?

Initial and on-going assessment of student readiness and growth is very important and needs to be made an important part of planning so it tells teachers how to better provide instruction and what scaffolds we need to put in place. Assessments may be formal or informal. Types of assessment can include interviews, surveys, performance assessments as role plays.

We need to remember that assessment, learning strategies need to align with the outcomes.

Allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways. Allow for varying means of expression, alternative assessment and varying levels of difficulty and scoring.

Build on students prior knowledge and understandings. Try to incorporate different views and perspectives of the world. If students see their cultures and views demonstrated they will feel a sense of belonging and that their identity is valued.

Engaging and motivating students is essential. Do not use the same tasks but vary them. Provide a balance between teacher-assigned and student-selected tasks and allow students choices in their learning. Provide real life activities and scenarios – authentic learning experiences that allow the students to engage in the learning than just observing. Let students see the practical application of what they are learning. Students learn best when they are doing.

Many may believe that differentiation is difficult and unrewarding. But when we think about it, having students of mixed abilities can be very rewarding. The thought that we are helping another student to learn and enter adulthood one day, that we can and have played an important part in their lives can be very rewarding.

But there are other benefits. Differentiation provides ways for all students to feel affirmed, challenged and succesful. It also allows for students to develop their social skills through interaction with teachers and other students. If we want our students to be good citizens, it is important that our classrooms model democracy where students have choices in the learning.

Most important of all, differentiation allows for our students to be succesful and competent learners ready one day to leave school and enter the world confident in their own abilities and skills.

Understanding by Design

14 Nov

Understanding By Design – Grant Wiggins and McTighe

How should teachers plan lessons? Wiggins and Mctighe suggest to teachers that to plan lessons effectively, we should plan our lessons backwards in three steps:

The First step is to Identify the Desired Results

The Second Step is to Determine the Acceptable Evidence

The Third Step is to Plan leaning experiences and instruction

Why plan backwards? When we plan lessons we need to plan learning experiencs that align with the outcomes or what we want students to achieve and assessment. Often planning is done where we include learning experiences that really have no relevance to what we want our students to know. Colin Marsh believes that if design is done backwards, it is more purposeful. In using backward design, we first decide what the task is that we want to be accomplished and then we work out how to get there.

Teachers are designers of curriculum and learning experiences. However, Wiggins and Mctighe believe that when we are planning lessons that we must think like assessors.

Many plan lessons by looking at the content first and then planning the lesson, trying to make the outcomes match the learning content, which leaves assessment as an after thought – not as a critical and important part of planning lessons. Assessment – both formative and summative – is an important part of the learning. Assessment should be about students demonstrating mastery or undestanding of what you need for them to learn.

Planning lessons should not be random, where we just choose learning experiences without seeing just how they fit into the learning. Students will be more engaged in the learning if they understand what the learning is meant to achieve. The content, the learning experiences and activities all should be to achieve a goal in learning.

Some critics of the backwards design believe that it places too much emphasis on outcomes and insufficient emphasis on selecting learning experiences. Other critics of the backwards design argue that many of its concepts are not new but derive from the works of Tyler and Bloom.

For example in the Objectives Model of curriculum development, Tyler believed design should be based on the 4 central questions – What educational purposes should the school seek to attain, What educational experiences can be provided that they are likely to attain, How can these educational experiences be effectively Organised and How can we determine if purposes are being allowed?

Dick and Carrey believe that we should see planning lessons as a system or a process where every component as learning, planning, assessment, outcomes – all are crucial parts of a system to create successful learning. When one of those parts does not make sense or is missing, then the whole system or process is weak and incomplete.

If we see curriculum design as a system, then we need to
– Identify an Instruction goal
– Conduct an analysis of our instruction
– Identify entry behaviours and characteristics
– Write performance objectives
– Developing criterion
– Developing on Instructional Strategy
– Develop and Select Instructions
– Design and conduct formative evaluation
– Revise instruction
– Conduct summative evaluation

By planning backwards, it encourages teachers to see that all of the components of the system or process align.

So where do we start?

We start planning by asking what are the outcomes that we want our students to achieve? What is worthy and requiring of understanding? What are the big ideas, the enduring concepts and theories that we want our students to learn and be able to carry over to other areas of learning.

The outcomes can also be based on what national or state standards and guidelines there are that must be achieved.

Teachers should be asking questions as to what extent does the results represent the big ideas of the discipline. Is the unit framed around enduring understandings and essential questions? It also asks teachers to what extent the potential to engage students.

In the second step Determine acceptable evidence, we must ask ourselves what kinds of evidence do we need to show that students have reached an understanding of the subject?

We have to remember that assessment needs to work alongside of the outcomes and the learning. Assessment must allow students to show that they have accessed the big idea and key concepts of the topic, not only the content.

There are 6 facets of understanding that shape assessment design – Explain, Interpet, Apply, Perspective, Empathy and Self Knowledge.

What assessment types would you use? Summative or Formative? It is important to remember that assessment must allow students to demonstrate that they have understood the big idea. Are there performance based assessments that you could use? Would you use authentic assessments as real life situations?

If you are differentiating assessment for Special Needs, ESL, or learning difficulties or even gifted students, are there assessment types other than standard tests in which student can demonstrate the learning? Could students use computer programs to demonstrate learning?

In the Third step we finally reach the planning of learning experiences and instruction. To effectively plan the lesson we have to ask what learning experiences and teaching promote understanding, interest and excellence?

What knowledge, facts, concepts, principles help students to understand the big ideas? What activities should we use that will provide students with the needed knowledge and skills? What materials and sources should we use? Are all of these in line with the design of the lesson and meet the outcomes?

When we plan lessons we have to remember that we cannot just pour information into our students. They have learn by doing and create meaning from their own experiences – constructivist learning as advocated by Piaget and Dewey. These learning experiences must allow students to access the big ideas, the key concepts and theories of the subject.

For example, what group activities would we use? As social constructivists believe that learning is a social activity, collaborative tasks as group work are an important part of the learning process. But in planning these group activities, we have to remember that the must not be random activities but purposeful that focus on the big ideas of the topic.

By using backwards design, it forces us to ask ourselves – does my lesson and overall planning make sense?

Why is Education Contentious?

14 Nov

Why Education is contentious?

Kieran Egan wrote an article ‘Why Education is so difficult and contentious’ in which he believed that our modern day education systems are founded on three key pillars – socialisation, Plato’s Academic ideal and Rousseau’s developmental theory.

But Kieran Egan believes that each of these three pillars – socialisation, Plato’s academic ideal and Rousseau’s developmental theory – are all ‘competing voices’ in education that not only contradict or compete against each other but also have conflicting ideals within themselves.

What does Egan believe by this?

The first idea – socialisation. We send our students to school in the hope that they will not only interact with other students but in doing so learn social morals or values, ways to behave socially so that when they leave school our students will be aware of what it is to be a good citizen, interacting socially correct with their peers.

But Egan believes that this idea of socialisation is all good and well for when people were hunter-gatherers and we depended on each other for survival and to act as part of a team. Schools by their nature are about conformity rather than about the individual. The wearing of a school uniform, the morning roll call, class times, where students fit in according to age and ability all aim to create a sense of belonging on one hand but a great deal of conformity.

However while we expect our students to socialise and learn the moral values of society, we also want our students to be individuals. We want our students to be thinking for themselves. We want them to not follow the crowd, but to be critical thinkers that know the difference between right and wrong.

In a democratic society, we want our students to uphold the values of individual freedom. We dont want our students to follow blindly the socially accepted ideals or norms that are morally wrong. But what do we do when we have an education system that demands conformity? Egan argues that socialisation requires acceptance of beliefs, values and norms that the disciplined academic mind sees as stereotypes and prejudices. Whlle we want our students to conform to social values, this conformity can lead to dangerous accepting of stereotypes and norms that are evident in facist or socialist dictatorships.

And this brings us to Plato’s Academic ideal where send our students to learn everything that they can about the world. We want our students to be intelligent and to learn the things that we expect that they should know, that will prepare them for life after school that will lead to either further education or good employment.

The problem is – whet exactly should our students be learning? As Egan points out that our libraries are full of books and knowledge but what exactly is it important to learn?

As adults, we can remember ourselves being in school and thinking that most of what we learnt was completely unnecessary. Who hasnt sat their and thought what was the point of Algebra or some history lesson about a person who was dead many hundereds of yeears ago that has absolutely no practical use in today’s workplaces?

Today’s employers, parents, community groups, government departments are all stakeholders or interested parties in our students education. Each of these stakeholders has a ‘voice’ in what education should be teaching our students. But as Egan points out, these ‘voices’ are often competing and conflicting against each other.

And what of practical use of knowledge in the real world? If we cannot see how knowledge, facts and theories are useful in everyday life, then why would students see them as important or relevant? Knowledge just does not exist in a book or in the teacher’s head – for students to understand the knowledge, the job of the teacher is to bring that knowledge alive, to show students how that knowledge is practical or can be used in the real world.

In our classrooms today we have the usual subjects of Maths, English, Science. To the lesser degree we have the humanities as History, Geography, and the arts as creative arts, drama and music and technical working as wood work and metal work. To satisfy the demands of employers, subjects as Maths and English are the dominant subject areas over all others. Ken Robinson noted that this focus on the dominant subject often leaves out the other subject areas so that students, no matter what they may be good at, often give up what they are interested in so that they will be good at the areas that will get them a job when they quit.

Information or knowledge is great but completely useless if it has no practical use in the real world. So why bother teaching it? If it put us to sleep when we were students, imagine what it is doing to our students today?

The third ideal of education is that of Jean Jacques Rousseau and the idea of development. Rousseau believed that children’s learning occurs in developmental stages and that therefore we have to alter our teaching techniques to the child’s learning. So rather than blaming the child for not learning, we have to look at how our own teaching styles are not catering for that child’s development stages.

Rousseau’s developmental theory should have led to a revolution in learning. We should have seen a change in education that moved from a subject-centred education to that of a child or student centred education. But this revolution has failed to occur in education. Why?

Since Rousseau’s ideas, we have had great educational thinkers as Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky and Maria Montessori but education has still not changed. Kieran Education believes that education has not changed because we are still debating the purpose of education.

Egan believes that when we began to see education in terms of either knowledge or the mind, we began to think of education as belonging to one or the other and so education became a war between those who were child centred and those who were subject centred.

Until these deep fault lines in thinking of education are resolved, then education will continue to be contentious.

Education in the 21st Century – What should it look like?

13 Nov

If we were to plan the ideal classroom for the 21st Century, what would it look like? Many believe that the future will be a technological age, where students have instant access to information. When we think of the purpose of education we want education to give our students skills to gain employment, but we want education to give our students a better education and a better future than we had. Our students have instant access to information via the internet but this has done little to improve outcomes in education. As we look to the future maybe we need to look to the past for the problems and to ourselves for solutions.

There are many who believe that our education system needs reform. Ken Robinson believes that it is time for a new paradigm of education as the current model is set in the economics demands of the 19th Century Industrial Revolution and the academic ideals of the 18th Century Enlightenment. Kieran Egan believes that the three purposes of education to socialise our students, promote academic achievement and develop our students into adults, are flawed and incompatible. .In 2001 Marc Prensky, the author of ‘Digital Natives, Digital immigrants’ warned us that our technologically savvy students are not the same people our educational system was designed to teach . The list of criticism goes on.

But if education needs to change, then what skills should we be teaching our students in the future? Anne Shaw believes our students will require skills as collaboration or the ability to work in teams. Critical thinking and the ability to take on complex problems will be essential. There will be renewed focus on oral communication skills as presentation and written communication skills. The ability of students to use technology and apply it in different situations will be important in the new technological age. Our students will need to be more aware of their roles in Citizenship and more active in civic and global issues. Anne Shaw also believes that research skills will also be essential in the future .

These are not new ideas in education. For example, Lev Vygotsky suggested that we learn in the Zone Proximal Development and that we need to scaffold learning. It was also Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory that recognised the importance of collaborative group work. Promoting critical thinking skills is as old as the Ancient Greek philosophers. John Dewey believed that education had to be defined as the fostering of thinking rather than just as the transmission of knowledge . Integrated Curriculum designs that can foster 21st Century learning can be attributed to the ideals of Dewey & Kilpatrick .

Many of the ideals and the skills that will be required for the 21st Century are currently used in Education. For example, the new Australian national curriculum outlines seven key general capabilities as literacy, numeracy, ICT, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical behaviour and intercultural understanding. The current NSW Board of Studies HSIE program is an interdisciplinary model to promote critical thinking and deeper knowledge across subjects. The Quality teaching in NSW provides a model of good pedagogy that promotes intellectual quality, learning environments and significance.

So what needs changing? The future is changing and these changes are occurring in classrooms now. Susan Goldwater-Smith and Paul S George remind us that our classrooms are heterogeneous or mixed with students from a variety of backgrounds. These include Non-English Speaking students as refugees and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We will also see students with learning difficulties and disabilities. Teachers will also need to differentiate for gifted and talented students. In the past, students that needed assistance were excluded from mainstream classrooms. This culture is changing in education. So when we think about education needing reform, maybe it is our own pedagogy or teaching that needs to change.

Ken Robinson believes that education does not need to be reformed, but it does need require a transformation from a standardised education to personalised education .

This is the challenge for teachers in the 21st Century: to create classrooms where all students can succeed. But if we are to change education, we need to create positive classroom environments where students feel safe and can express themselves as individuals. The ideal classroom would be based on mutual respect where diversity is celebrated. It is also a classroom where students are encouraged and teachers help students to develop their strengths. It is also a classroom that promotes collaboration between students and invites the local community as parents to be a part of the learning process.

Classrooms need to be fun places where students enjoy coming to school to learn and can see how what they are learning is relevant. Education should be to help students make sense of their world and we need to provide learning experiences that are not only meaningful and relevant but are also engaging and motivating. Teachers need to move away from textbooks and direct teaching to practical activities where students are involved in the learning. By providing choices to students in what topics or assessments they choose, we can help students to develop their strengths as they can chose topics that suits their interests.

Every educational theory suggests using collaboration or group work in every class. Social constructivist theory of Lev Vygotsky suggests that we do not learn in isolation, but that we learn is socially constructed. Flexible group work not only encourages interaction between students and developing social skills, but encourages teamwork and should be used for practical activities and problem solving tasks.

Our teaching needs to focus on the teaching of critical thinking skills which encourages our students to challenge, ask questions, explore possible alternatives and understand other perspectives.
Bonnie Potts suggests that strategies for critical thinking can include finding analogies and relationships between pieces of information, determining its relevance, and finding and evaluating solutions . But we can also promote critical thinking skills by using reflection which Dewey believed to be a special form of problem solving, to think about how to resolve an issue . Reflection through the use of diaries or journals can help students to develop deep thinking skills and help develop literacy.

As our students are individuals that learn in a variety of ways, we need to adapt our teaching methods or differentiate to allow our students to access the concepts of the lesson. For example, teachers can use visuals as presentations, movies and graphics to illustrate concepts. We can also use oral materials as music and stories. In the classroom we can provide equipment as computers, maps or books as dictionaries. But learning can occur outside the classroom using real life experiences as field trips or talks by local community leaders.
Differentiation should not only help students to understand concepts, but should also seek to develop essential skills as literacy and numeracy. Teachers can help students understand concepts and develop skills by providing contexts of the materials and building on prior knowledge.

Curriculum design needs to facilitate meaningful learning experiences. Where curriculum design was traditionally subject centred, we need to look at integrated or interdisciplinary curriculum models where concepts and skills are the focus rather than the subject content. Franzie Loepp provides two integrated curriculum models as the Problem based model where students learn through examining a real life problem and the theme based model based around a theme. Both of these models have the advantage to using real life problems and bringing learning outside of the classroom away from textbooks. Authentic learning can promote collaboration with the local community as Aboriginal elders.

The most crucial part of the curriculum process is the assessment where students demonstrate that they have mastered the essential concepts and ideas of the topic. Ideally, summative and formative assessments would not be exam based, but would be authentic assessment tasks where students chose how they demonstrated mastery of the concepts. As Wiggins and Mctighe recognise that assessment plays a central part in the learning process and teachers should curriculums as assessors, than teachers .

Assessment should allow students to demonstrate learning that focuses on their strengths, than their weaknesses. Ideally we would use authentic assessments where students could use performance based assessments as essays, interviews, presentations, role plays, and portfolios. When assessment allows students to demonstrate what they have learnt and succeed, it provides students with a sense of success and confidence. When this moment arrives there is no proudest moment for a teacher.

There has been a lot of speculation about the future of education and the problems with education. But the one thing that will never change is the need for good teachers who are passionate about teaching and who do everything that they can to help their students succeed.

Technology can never take the place of a good teacher and it should not. But as our society changes, our classrooms change. In a multicultural society, there will be challenges.

What we know and have always known is that good teachers make a difference in preparing our students to leave school as confident young adults ready to take their place in society.


Cam, Phillip ‘Dewey, Lipman and the tradition of Reflective Education’, in Taylor, Michael, Schreier, Helmut and Ghiraldelli, Jr., Paulo, (eds.). Pragmatism, Education, and Children: International Philosophical Perspectives. Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi, 2006.

Egan, Kieran ‘Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up’, Published by Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, USA, 2008

George, Paul ‘A Rationale for Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classrooms’ Theory into Practice, Vol. 44, No. 3, Differentiated Instruction (Summer, 2005), pp. 185-193

Groundwater-Smith, Susan, Ewing, R & Le Cornu, R ‘Teaching: Challenges and Dilemmas’, Published by Cengage Learning, South Melbourne, 2011.

Hatton, Neville & Smith, David, ‘Reflection in Teacher Education: Towards Definition and Implementation’, in ‘Teaching and Teacher Education’, Volume 11, Issue 1, January 1995, Pages 33-49

Loepp, Franzie, ‘Models of Curriculum Integration’, The Journal of Technology Studies, Virginia Tech, Volume XXV, Number 2, Summer/Fall 1999, pp21-25

Potts, Bonnie ‘Strategies for teaching critical thinking. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation’, ERIC Digests, 4(3).1994. Retrieved on November 20th 2012 from http://PAREonline.net/getvn.asp?v=4&n=3

Prensky, Marc ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’, from ‘On the Horizon’, University Press, Volume 9, 5th October 2001.

Robinson, Ken & Aronica, Lou ‘The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’, Published by Penguin and Viking, 2009

Shaw, Anne ‘Education in the 21st Century’ Ethos: Volume 17, Issue 1, Term 1, March 2009, pp

Wiggins, G & McTighe, J ‘Understanding by Design’ Expanded 2nd Edition, Association for Supervising and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, 2005

Closing the Gap on Aboriginal Education

12 Nov

Indigenous students face many challenges but the biggest challenge they face is exclusion in education. Traditionally education has been focused on Anglo-Saxon perspectives and ways of knowledge, often excluding or marginalising Aboriginal perspectives.

Nola Purdie and Sarah Buckley point out that lack of recognition of Indigenous culture and history in schools is a significant cause of non-attendance in schools (Purdie & Buckley).

When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students do not see their own culture valued in schools, then they will not feel included in education.

But many of the problems in schools as misbehaviour, poor grades, absenteeism and non-attendance have been attributed by teachers to the disadvantage of the students. Noel Pearson warns us that teachers are susceptible to the use of a student’s background and their disadvantage as an ‘alibi’ for school failure (Pearson, 2009). When we begin blaming student’s disadvantage, we develop what Neil Harrison calls a ‘deficit discourse’ in which we see Aboriginals as ‘victims’ of their disadvantage (Harrison, 2011).

Teachers need to change this attitude by setting high expectations for students. Chris Sarra believes that teachers can promote high expectations when they challenge absenteeism and misbehaviour by visiting parents to find out why students did not attend school and make the effort to explain to parents the importance of education.

Teachers can promote high expectations when they also reflect on our own classroom practices to consider what they might need to do differently to improve student learning (Sarra, 2011). We need to create a positive classroom environment where students feel culturally safe and without any fear of rejection, but feel encouraged, respected and diversity is welcomed.

If we are to address problems of misbehaviour and absenteeism, we need to develop a learning environment that recognises Aboriginal Culture. Mick Dobson notes that schools are seen by students not as an integral part of Aboriginal communities but as an entry into an alien environment (Dobson). The reasons for this are because Aboriginal students do not see their own culture reflected in textbooks or in the learning experiences provided by teachers.

Neil Harrison recognises that many Aboriginal students are not convinced that school is worthwhile because they cannot see themselves in the pictures of the future painted for them by teachers (Harrison 2011).

To promote inclusion we must develop a cultural awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and perspectives. We can begin this by recognising and celebrating Aboriginal culture and history in ceremonies as “Acknowledgement of Country” recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the traditional custodians of the land.

Participation in events as NAIDOC week will also allow students to not only appreciate Aboriginal culture but to celebrate diversity and help to prevent the racist stereotypes that develop due to ignorance of Aboriginal culture and history.

Keeping students engaged in learning means that what we teach has to be relevant and meaningful so that students can see clear links between their lives and the learning. For learning to be meaningful, Students should learn in the context of their local community. The NSW Quality teaching model recommends that pedagogy that promotes intellectual quality also requires that teachers link the work of their students to personal, social and cultural contexts outside the classroom. For example, teaching on a subject as the First World War I would use local community examples as the cenotaph or war memorial.

Inclusion also means embedding Aboriginal perspectives in what we teach. The NSW Board of Studies has made it mandatory that Aboriginal perspectives are taught across the curriculum. Using the example of the First World War, I would incorporate indigenous perspectives by using resources such as ‘Too Dark for the Light Horse’ which tells us about the stories of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders during the First World War. This resource is helpful as it not only allows students to explore Aboriginal perspectives of going to war, but it also provides an insight into issues that impact Aboriginal Australians today such as racism and prejudice.

It also allows students to see that Aboriginal history did not end at 1788, but that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders continue to play an important part in Australian society and history.
As teachers we also need to demonstrate a cultural sensitivity in which we avoid making assumptions. The knowledge that we transmit to students is from our own non-aboriginal perspectives. One assumption is that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are from the same group or ‘nation’ which is incorrect as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are a diverse group of nations scattered around Australia.

Teachers must display a cultural sensitivity in the materials that we choose that may portray what Colin marsh describes as a ‘museum approach’ to Aboriginals culture as primitive and ‘noble savages’.
We also need to be sensitive to different learning techniques. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have strong oral traditions of passing down stories and knowledge verbally, this has led to weaknesses in literacy and numeracy skills.

Aboriginal students may also speak more than one dialect and speak English as a second language teachers have to be careful not to make assumptions about Aboriginal student’s skills. We need to distinguish between language difference and learning difficulties, and the cultural differences in protocols and behaviours (Hanlen, 2011).

If we are to help our students learn then we need to look at student-centred classrooms and learning techniques that encourage learning. It is recognised that Aboriginal students learn best by doing rather than by theory. Neil Harrison recognises that students learn by imitating others (Harrison 2011). Teachers need to differentiate their teaching methods which include avoiding the overuse of textbooks and provide authentic learning experiences which deal with real life situations or themes that students can relate to.

But this also requires that teachers encourage learning strategies as collaboration or group work where students can work together on projects rather than independently where they feel isolated from other students.

To teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students literacy and numeracy skills, Noel Pearson suggests that explicit phonics-based reading instruction is imperative for Aboriginal students (Pearson, 2009, p53). Neil Harrison suggests that although the aim is to get students to read the whole text and then to focus on how letters and sentences fit together, with Aboriginal students it is important to avoid ‘big jumps’. Teachers should build the story or text in smaller, graduated steps so that the meaning is ‘negotiated and clarified’.

By explaining words and spelling them out with students, teachers can scaffold reading material that helps students to grasp the meaning of words and construct sentences to help students develop confidence in their own learning ability.

If we are to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage, then it has to be with the collaboration of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. In outlining what works for closing the school completion gap for indigenous students, Sue Helme and Stephen Lamb recognise that the involvement of the indigenous community in planning and providing education. In assessing what does not work, identify problems as a one size fits all and ‘top down’ government approach that ignores community input (Helme & Lamb, 2011).

Involving the local community in all aspects of education as curriculum planning and school events provides the local community with a voice in education. If we are to teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, then the Aboriginal community have the right to be consulted. The NSW Board of Studies recognises that if when teaching Aboriginal perspectives that it is vital that local Aboriginal history and culture be included (NSW Board of Studies, 2008).

The most important partners in education are the parents of Aboriginal students who have enduring relationships with their child. Because parents want to see their children succeed at school, parents are important stakeholders in their child’s education and are useful allies to teachers as parents will want to know if there are any problems at school as misbehaviour and absenteeism. Parents can also play an important role in helping to address learning problems such as reading. For example, if students are having hearing problems as Otitis Media or ‘Glue ear’ teachers should collaborate with parents to develop a support plan for students learning.
As including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in the classroom is mandatory, it is important to include the Aboriginal community in all steps of curriculum planning and events celebrating Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal Elders can play an important part in passing knowledge about Aboriginal culture and perspectives in the classroom particularly about sensitive issues as the stolen generations, native title as deaths in custody. As Aboriginal Elders are well respected in the Aboriginal community, involving Aboriginal Elders allows students to see that Aboriginal culture is valued. However teachers need to contact Aboriginal representatives through appropriate channels. The NSW Department of Education has Aboriginal support staff as an Aboriginal Education Worker or an Aboriginal Education Officer who have access to resources and who know the appropriate people to contact.

I think if there is one thing to be gained from the research is that if we are to close the gap on indigenous disadvantage, then we have to begin to stop looking at Aboriginal Australia as separate from mainstream of Anglo-Saxon Australia. For too long, Aboriginal Australia has been treated as apart or as historic Australia. Students need to see that there are not two Australia’s but one Australia where students are proud of their Aboriginal identity.
But embedding Aboriginal perspectives should be a natural process where we instinctively accept diversity in our classrooms and we acknowledge that there are perspectives apart from non-aboriginal perspectives of the world. Including Aboriginal and other perspectives or world views should not be forced but that teachers should look at all topics from other points of view.
Teachers need to develop a cultural awareness in the classroom. Teachers play an important role in student perceptions of education. We need to create classroom environments that are positive, encouraging, welcoming and appreciate and recognise diversity. Students are intuitive enough to realise when teachers appreciate them or reject them. Teacher attitudes contribute greatly to students attending school and feeling included in the classroom.
Research shows that it is interaction with the local community, parents and elders that helps teachers in the classroom. If we are going to teach Aboriginal perspectives, then we need to involve Aboriginal community to make real connections between the classroom and students. As Aboriginal Elders and parents play an important role in our student’s lives it makes sense to involve them in teaching and issues inside the classroom.

But if we are to close the gap, teachers must look at themselves and ask ourselves how can we help to close the gap, to make education fun and relevant for students. If our students are to be active and informed citizens as decreed by the Melbourne Declaration of 2008, then we have keep our students engaged in school so that education can succeed in providing students with the skills for the future to close the gap in indigenous disadvantage.

ESL Students in Secondary Education

12 Nov

As teachers, we are finding that the Students in our classrooms come from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds. Many students from from Non-English speaking Backgrounds (NESB) where English as a Second Language (ESL) or English is an Additional Language or Dialect (EALD).

ESL students come from a range of backgrounds and experiences. Some students are new migrants who have some education in their home countries as International students. Other ESL students may be refugees or asylum seekers fleeing from persecution and civil war. These students may have no education or limited education in their home countries. These students may also be traumatised from their experiences and have behavioural problems in school. Schools may need to provide high levels of support socially, emotionally, and culturally.

As teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) we must recognise that not all students have the same degrees of English skills. To understand the degree of English our students have, we can use the 3 Phases of Language Aquisition.

Phase 1 – Beginners where student have no to limited spoken or written english skills. These students will require a great deal of ESL teacher support.

Phase 2 – Developing English skills where students are developing their oral, reading and writing skills. These student have basic Interpersonal communication skills (BICS) but limited academic skills (CALPS). These students will be trying to develop their english skills beyond familiar situations and still require the support of ESL Teachers.

Phase 3 – Advanced english development where students have advanced skills nearing to first language ability. Students at Year 11 and 12 should be at this stage with their english skills development.

The Australian Curriculum Development or ACARA has 4 stages of Language Aquisition – Beginners, Developing, Emerging, Competent.

It is important that teaching English literarcy skills is a natural part of the Curriculum as students require english skills to not only access learning but to be able to survive in society. Teachers need to aim to make all students confident and capable learners.


Like all students, ESL students need a classroom environment which they feel safe as learners. As refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution, many students may suffer from the trauma of their experiences. We also need to recognise that a life in refugee or transition camps may be leaving students feeling insecure, anxious, unsettled, nervous. We need to provide a classroom environment with stable rules and routines, that lets students feel at ease in a predictable environment.

We need to provide an environment where students feel that they are welcomed or included, that their culture is recognised, and that recognises diversity. A classroom that allows students to feel culturally safe or their culture is valued, ESL students will take risks and be more active in the classroom, not being afraid to make mistakes and build their confidence.

Teachers can promote Inclusion by including ESL and native cultures and perspectives in learning. For example, if discussing creation we need not only look at Christian perspectives on creation but also look at Aboriginal or Indigenous perspectives or Muslim and Buddist beliefs of creation.

Recognising other cultures values and perspectives in learning provides a sense of empowerment to students and their sense of identity. Teachers can also promote inclusion by getting to know their students, recognising their strengths and their views. We also need to have high expectations of our students and to avoid having a deficit discourse, where we believe our students cannot achieve.

Having high expectations of our students means that the learning must be challenging that engages and motivates students. Lessons must be relevant so students see the purpose of learning and should be connected to real life experiences and build on students prior knowledge. Teachers should also build on students strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses.


Recognising that not all students are the same but that our classrooms are heterogenous or that students have mixed abilities is the basis for Differentiation. Our students are individuals so we need to tailor our instruction to learners individual needs.

Teachers need to make the learning easier to be understood teaching needs to be understood by students. Stephen Krashen spoke about language Aquisition and ‘Comprehensible Input’ in which teachers must use methods that makes learning easier for students. In the classroom teachers can use visuals as videos, graphics and presentations to make learning easier.

Teachers have to remember that Students bring their own prior knowledge and cultural understandings to learning. When students interpret texts and decode texts, they do so with their own understandings of the texts. Many texts may contain slang or satire that needs to be explained to students.


It is important that teachers in all subject areas promote literacy. Every subject area contains literacy that needs to be explained and scaffolded to students. Concepts and ideas need to be explicitly explained to students.

We can promote reading in the classroom through helping students to understand the texts. Teachers should provide interesting and engaging reading materials and help students to de-construct texts. Teachers need to help students understand the text, the purpose, the background of the text, concepts or main ideas involved and the vocabulary or words used. We can also help students understand texts by using imagery. It is important that we teach reading and writing within a context.

It is important for ESL students to understand reading, that they can first use their home or first language to write down ideas. Being able to express themselves in their home language helps students to then translate the ideas into English.

Teachers can have students reading silently first or reading within a group. To promote reading skills, teachers can highlight important words or meanings in the text. We can also repeat words by writing them down and using them in different contexts. We can also use drawings, storytelling, and drama to understand concepts in texts.


Like reading, teachers need to begin by helping students understand the purpose, the type and the kind of writing. What is the subject, what audience and genre are they writing for – ie report, essay. What prior knowledge should the students build on to begin about the subject.

After exploring the concepts and ideas of writing, students begin to write drafts. These drafts can then be revised and edited by students and peers, looking at sentence structure. Teachers should not be harsh on grammar at this stage of writing but aim to build students confidence in writing. After the revising and editing of the draft, students then present or publish their writing. Teachers should help students to develop vocabulary.

Some of the strategies that teachers can use are to use buddies or peer support for writing. Teachers can also use visuals to support ideas and to provide examples of writing in that genre or text. Other methods include dialogue journal writing and provide materials in the classroom as dictionaries and thesaurus for students to check their vocabularly and meanings of words. Other activities include using ‘Cloze Passage’ activities where students are given a passage missing key words and students fill in the key words.


Assessment of ESL students needs to focus on their development of English oral, writing and reading skills.

In 1994, the Curriculum corporation developed the ESL Scales in which teachers can assess the development of English oral, writing and reading skills.

The ESL Scales are important to providing teachers with a set of benchmarks for student achievement. Because ESL students may not develop all skills equally, the ESL Scales allow teachers to look at student achievement in all three areas and develop strategies to help improve those areas in learning.

The ESL Scales can also assist teachers with assessment strategies where students can demonstrate their learning in other areas. If we are going to focus on students strengths than weaknesses, then we need to use alternative assessment formats which documents students growth over time. Students who are weak in writing can demonstrate their mastery in the key concepts through performance assessments as oral performances, portfolios, drawings, making videos, role plays, oral reports, paraphrasing stories, summarizing, presentations.

But assessment needs not only be summative but formative or continous assessment that is embedded into the learning. Formative assessment activities can include listening for specific information, completing true or false questions or short answer questions. Other writing assessment tasks may include correcting sentences with grammatical errors.

Formative assessment can also be speaking assessment as participation in pair work or group discussions or ability to provide specific information when answering questions.


It is important for ESL students to interact with other students. Vygotsky’s social constructivism believes that we do not learn in isolation but in social interaction with other people. It is important that teachers use group work in which ESL students interact with other students. It is important that group work be flexible in which students are grouped with other students as buddies.

One idea for group work is the Think Pair Share in which students are seated in teams of 4 and they are given a number from 1 to 4. Students are given a discussion topic or problem to solve. Students are given time to think of an answer. Using student numbers, announce discussion partners. Ask students to PAIR with their partner to discuss the topic or solution. Finally, randomly call on a few students to SHARE their ideas with the class.

Think Pair shares are good for Vocabulary review, Quiz review, Reading check, Concept review, Lecture check, Outline, Discussion questions, Partner reading, Topic development, Agree/Disagree, Brainstorming, Simulations, Current events opinion, Conceding to the opposition, Summarize, Develop an opinion

Collaboration is also important for teachers. Teachers alone are unable to achieve the goals of teaching ESL Students. It is important for teachers to interact with support staff as ESL teachers who can help classroom teachers develop strategies for ESL students. Teachers should also seek assistance from support staff as reading teachers and welfare or support officers.

The most important collaboration teachers should have is with parents who many teachers believe are more of a headache. But parents have the best interests of their child in their hearts and therefore make the best allies with teachers and should be invited to take a more active role in their child’s learning, including visiting the school and participating in class activities.

Teachers should also seek to participate with the local community. Learning should be focus on real life experiences and building on what students already know. The best place for that is the local community. Teachers should seek to get the local community involved in programming and assessment as well as involvement in the classroom. Teachers should seek to get community perspectives and invite indigenous leaders in the classroom. This makes the local community feel involved in education processes and that local voices are valued.


Practical Ideas on Alternative Assessment for ESL Students. ERIC Digest by Jo-Ellen, Tannenbaum

Instructional Strategies online http://olc.spsd.sk.ca/DE/PD/instr/strats/think/

Critical Thinking – Thinking Philosophically

12 Nov

In everything subject area, the most important aspect of learning is the teaching of critical thinking skills. John Dewey believed that education was the fostering of thinking rather than just the transmission of knowledge. The Philosopher Socrates believed that we learn best by asking questions and testing the answers.

Critical thinking is developing students ability to think and an example of Metacognition where we use higher-order processes to solve problems and challenges. In the Australian National Curriculum, Critical and Creative thinking skills is one of the Seven general capabilities.

For example in History the Australian National Curriculum outlines critical and creative thinking skills as being able to evaluate knowledge, clarify concepts and ideas, seek possibilities, consider alternatives and solve problems. Critical thinking in history is important as students need to question sources, interpret the past from incomplete documentation, develop an argument using evidence, and assess reliability when selecting information from resources.

But what is also important in history is for students to be understand that there is more than one perspective on events. For example if historians were looking at creation, there is not only the Judeo-Christian perspective on creation. There are also the Buddist, the Hindu and the Muslim perspectives. Also native indigenous inhabitants as the Australian Aborigines have their own dreamtime stories on how the earth and people came to be.

There is more than one side to every story.

Critical thinking skills are important to foster in learning as they help students to make informed decisions. If we want students to develop good reasoning skills that allow them to be informed citizens, it is important that we teach them how to question what is put before them and come to conclusions based on facts and evidence.

Without critical thinking skills, students will not be able to reach decisions and judgements which are factual and demonstrate understanding. Without critical thinking, students can be the victim of falsehoods. For example, Peter Cookson notes that our students have at their fingertips access to large amounts of information through the internet on search sites as google. But even with access to all that information, how do students not only make sense of that information but how do they know what is fact from fiction, right from wrong, truth from lies?

We need to teach our students not to accept anything blindly but to understand how it works and if it contains truth.

What are some examples of critical thinking skills?

Critical thinking strategies include
– Reflective thinking
– Examining different points of view
– Examining our own views
– Making Comparisons
– Anaysis
– Problem solving
– Testing conclusions / hypothesis
– Exploring alternatives – could there be more than one solution?
– Finding analogies between pieces of information
– Asking Open ended questions – no one right answer
– Challenging accepted norms, views

If we are going to promote critical thinking skills in the classroom, we have to foster a spirit of discovery. We can do this by using collaborative groups to solve real life problems or discuss issues. For example, the class could be divided into groups and given a point of view of a current issue to discuss. Or a task to solve a problem could be given to a group to work collaboratively on and present their findings or research to the class.

But to foster an environment ready for critical thinking, Bonnie Potts suggests that critical thinking in the classroom is facilitated by a physical and intellectual environment that encourages a spirit of discovery. How can our classrooms be arranged to do this? The set up of the classroom so that students share the stage with the teacher and interact with each other. Bonnie also suggest the use of visual aids in the classroom to encourage critical thinking.

Other possible ideas are class discussions, class debates and role plays where students play a character or represent a point of view. What makes this more fun for students is not only a chance to talk about an issue but to dress up and to play a character. For example, if you wanted students to explore colonisation you could have students discussing the indigenous perspectives and others discusing the colonisers perspectives.

To encourage reflection and critical thinking, teachers could have students write dialogue journals in which students reflect on the lesson and issues, writing down their thoughts or feelings on what they observed.

What about using real life problems or scenarios? Students learn best when they are given a real or authentic problem or issue that they can discuss.

Just as technology allows our students access to large amounts of information, technology can also be used to develop critical thinking skills as inquiry. Teachers could also use technology as computer programs or web based designs to foster critical thinking. Students could use skype, emails to communicate and work on ideas in a web based project as Wikispaces where teachers could design a project and problem and students could collaborate on it or use the discussion board to share ideas.


Philip Cam ‘Dewey, Lipman and the Tradition of Reflective Education’

Cookson, Peter W ‘What Would Socrates Say’, Teaching for the 21st Century, September 2009, Vol 67, No.1, pp 8-14,

Potts, Bonnie ‘Strategies for teaching Critical thinking’, Practical Assessment, Research and Evaluation 4 (3), 1994