Saturday, July 19, 2014

the smartest kids in the world and how they got that way

ALERT! The following post is NOT about flipping my primary classroom. 

It IS about some of the highest PISA test scoring students on the planet, and arguably, how they got that way. 

If you are only interested in flipping (or blending) the classroom, perhaps you should skip this post?

But...if you are interested in what makes kids 'smart' (define smart please) perhaps you would like to read on...

The Smartest Kids In the World
and how they got that way

Dear colleagues,

I enjoyed reading the text ‘The Smartest Kids in the World’ over the holiday break.

It primarily deals with the sudden jump in academic results for three international locations – Finland, South Korea and Poland.

Students in these locations have been sitting the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests from when they were first established as members of OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) - since the year 2000. They have scored consistently in the high range. Meanwhile, the US and Australia have gone backwards.

The author (Amanda Ripley) simply asks the question – How did these high-performing students get 'that way'?

The answer, as far as the author is concerned, is broken down into one simple word:


The authors’ thesis runs as follows - US (and Australian) testing just isn’t hard enough (in mainstream schools). The students are simply not pushed and nor are teachers rising to the challenge. In the three high performing countries listed above, the testing is extremely rigorous - and the students and teachers consistently rise to the challenge, but not always in healthy ways.

One US state (Maine) decided to implement a more rigorous testing programme for its students. However, on the eve of the assessments, it appeared as if more than half the senior year cohort would fail. So they deferred the tests, afraid of looking bad. Then they deferred them again. Then they just shelved them. Now, nobody talks about them anymore. Until, of course, this book was published!

In the US, students are denied the chance to fail at school. They simply fail in the real world instead.

    A powerful story was related by the author about a high performing maths teacher who was moved into a low performing school. He awarded an ‘F’ to a student who had previously consistently achieved ‘C’s or ‘B’s. Her parents were outraged, and she was very upset and confused as she was a lovely quiet girl who had always tried hard.
“Why did you give me an ‘F’?’ she asked the teacher.
‘I didn't give you an ‘F’. You earned it’’ was his reply.

This young lady ended up creating a study group, doubling her study efforts, and at the end of the year she achieved a ‘C’ grade – a genuine ‘C’ grade. In tears she thanked her teacher for awarding her the grade. He simply replied… ‘I didn’t give you a ‘C’. ’You earned it’.

This story gave me pause for thought. How honest are we with our students? Do we sugar coat the truth (or outright withhold it) because we think that they can't handle it? And if we do this… are we really helping them? Perhaps it would be better for them to fail now, instead of later.

It seems that improved student results are largely up to teachers, and the system the teachers come from and work under. No real surprises there. In Australia we have known for some time that the biggest factor impacting on student results in a classroom (apart from the sizeable demographic factor) is teacher quality (Teachers Make a Difference – John Hattie 2003).

The message from Amanda Ripley’s book is that it is the rigour with which teachers teach (and the high expectations they have of their students) that is the key factor.

Finland was a key high-performing country included in the author’s study. Some educationalists have criticised the Finnish results, feeling that because of the largely mono-cultural and mono-racial nature of Finland, teaching and testing must be much simpler - and this would likely translate into better scores.

In order to investigate this theory, the author travelled to small outlying schools on the very edge of Finland dedicated to educating the children of the very small amount of refugees that do enter this country. These students were taught under the same educational model as the rest of the population, and the improvement rate of these students was identical.

Refugees from worn-torn countries living in Finland are achieving at higher rates than the standard US student.

Here’s a key comment from the text, from a passionate teacher who works directly with these refugee students: ‘I can’t know their backstory. If I do I will feel sorry for them and I won’t be hard enough on them.’

Let’s just reflect on that for a moment.

The message here: rigour - and high expectations.

The author also takes a good crack at the American (Australian?) cult of self-esteem…by which she means the very popular idea that the most important thing in school is that students feel good about themselves. She notes that in all the high achieving countries there is no such emphasis on students feeling good about themselves. The emphasis, in these schools, is on achievement; whether you are correct, or incorrect, and why. Students fail, and fail regularly. Mostly, after a while, they stop failing.

In none of the high achieving countries are students awarded marks for effort. They are awarded marks for results. The author contrasts this with the practice of some US high schools in which up to 60 percent of the grade is derived from an ‘effort’ score!

Again (and this is worth repeating) - students in higher performing countries tend to fail more often in school – so as not to fail later on in life.

The author took some time to note the total lack of effect on a student’s results made by ‘bake-sale mums’. Helping out around the school, running programs, or painting murals was shown to have no positive affect whatsoever on a student’s results, and in some cases, led to a negative effect. The US is full of parents just like this. It would seem that Mums and Dads who help out around the school are not necessarily helping their child to achieve.

Rather (and unsurprisingly) it was the parents who read with and discussed texts critically with students in the family home who generated higher-achieving students. It was the family  that read together, or modelled reading to their children, that consistently scored more highly on standardised tests.

Though this is not the author’s main point - it is worth raising. In most of these high performing countries teachers are of a high status; that is, it is not easy to be a teacher and the profession is honoured. A number of rigorous assessments take place before a candidate is even considered for teacher’s college, and whilst teachers are by no means considered wealthy citizens, they are very well-paid. South Korea is the exception, in which the bulk of the teaching is done at night by highly-paid tutors. In this case it is the tutors that are revered.

Of the countries studied, the author does not offer South Korea as an aspirational model. In fact she refers to it as ‘the pressure cooker’. The amount of pressure placed on students to perform in this country has led to some fairly grim events. Poland and Finland are suggested as much superior alternatives.

That said, one of my favourite chapters in the book was titled the ‘Four-Million Dollar Teacher’. The author asks...where would you go in a tutor-driven educational free market economy like South Korea to find the ‘best’ teacher? She concludes that it would be the most popular tutor in Korea - the tutor that as many parents as possible try to access because he delivers real results.

That’s this guy - Kim Ki-Hoon, the world’s most highly paid after-school tutor. The chapter made me think more carefully about performance-based pay for teachers - the risks and rewards. In this sort of system, teachers who do a better job might get paid more, but of course you run the very real risk of creating a test-driven educational economy.

The book relies heavily on the results of the PISA tests. These tests were designed by Dr. Andreas Schleicher, a German statistician and researcher in the field of education. In 1994 he became project manager at the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) of the OECD in Paris. He began to develop the PISA study there in 1995 and with the help of fellow researchers globally, the PISA tests are what they are today. Though the PISA tests are subject to some criticism, as all tests are, I can only agree with the author when she says,’ The PISA tests aren’t perfect. But they are the best we’ve got’.

The tests themselves are very concerned with critical thinking in the areas of Maths, English (or your first language equivalent) and Science. The questions mostly require long written answers, and there are numerous correct answers. The tests are difficult to mark, and take many hours of arduous human assessment.

There are no robots marking these exams.

As yet the PISA tests do not measure collaborative skills, but at the time of writing, Dr. Andreas Schleicher was working on ways to amend and improve the tests to incorporate this component.

I feel I must mention this final point, because it struck me so soundly. Amanda Ripley quotes a study on effective praise (praise which leads to actual growth and development) which identifies 3 key factors that are essential to praise that works:

a) it is genuine
b) it is specific
c) it is rare

In fact, praise that is none of the above has the opposite effect. Students, it seems, are not easily fooled. They can recognise our false praise.

Is this what you learnt at university? Because I sure didn’t. Should we really be making ourselves give out 6 merit awards a week? Or perhaps the Principal's awards should really mean something.

So what does this mean for my classroom?

This year I intend to teach a little harder, and a little meaner. It doesn’t mean I won’t smile at the students. It just means that the bar for success has gone up. We have already gone some way down this path at Inaburra, in making the ‘C’ a standard pass grade, and an ‘A’ and ‘B’ increasingly rare.

As mentioned, I am now thinking much harder about who gets merit certificates, and why.

I am promoting reading and viewing texts (print and visual) at home more vigorously than ever with the parent body. It seems clear that it is those students whose families dissect texts, as opposed to offering simple praise for a book read, who consistently score more highly. Let’s also try to catch Dad reading a book.

Thanks for taking the time to share my thoughts. I hope that you have had a few new ones of your own along the way.


image taken from:

I have also started to consult in NSW primary and high schools with regards to flipping (or blending) the classroom. If you are interested in having me come along to speak to your staff, details can be found here:

Monday, May 19, 2014

Flipping my Primary Classroom - Qualitative results

Dear fellow flippers (and interested parties),

Please find below a link to qualitative results generated by my class concerning the blended classroom.

There are 27 students in total in my class this year. The below survey supplies responses from 22 of them (some were away and others probably didn't hit the submit button).

Regardless, that's about 80 percent of the class, and I am comfortable referring to that as a representative sample.

The survey basically compared the teaching of our Multiplication and Division unit (which was taught entirely in the blended style with no face to face whole-class teaching) with traditional teaching (teacher out the front and class-swapping).

(If you are interested in a more detailed explanation of the specific blended approach that we took in my classroom please see my previous post.0

If you don't have time to look at the complete results, here's a very brief summary of data and comments:

About 80 percent prefer the total flip (blend). 20 percent don't mind, or really have an opinion.

Slightly more than 80 percent think they learn better in the blended classroom.

About 65 percent think we should use teaching videos all the time. 35 percent think it should be a mix of both.

Being able to rewind, pause or forward through the content (if they understand it) at their convenience is a very popular quality.

Here are some comments that stood out to me:

I do not really enjoy the hassle of swapping classes. We have to shuffle around everywhere and it just gets all too confusing. When we use our tech we can do it then and there. Simple!

Because i think i learn better while listening to you teaching us on the tech because its individual and if someone doesn't get it they can just look back on the video without disrupting the class and have to go back to the question their on.

I like it better. It's much easier than before. It also helps when you are stuck because you can review that part of the video.

because you can work at you own pace and i love doing stuff on my tech and you can pause it if you have a problem. Also you can watch the videos and if you still dont get it you can ask the teacher so it is like you are doing it both ways when you are whatching the videos

Because it's easyer to use and it is also NOT SUPER BORING plus it's cool how we have our own website to.We can also do stuff like this IT IS AWESOME!!!!!

 because we can always go back to it

Because you can rewind, pause and stuff if you don't get it you can just re watch the video but when you learn in your class sometimes you don't understand and get it wrong but with the videos it helps me because i can pause, rewind and review.

Because it talks to you only and no one else.

And one of my favourites:

I think in some areas of learning there could be different videos for different people. For example, a video or two for people who need a bit of support, a video or two for the average learners and a video for the challenged learners. All of this might take too much time out of the teachers day, so it is understandable if this cannot be done.

For reasons of brevity I won’t include more comments. I want to! It has been quite difficult to discriminate – I wanted to include them all. But then I would just be reproducing the survey. Not all the comments were 100 percent positive (but most were). There is certainly one or two things to consider.

I do encourage you to take a look at the complete survey yourself. It is a fascinating read. Please find the link below. I used the internet tool 'survey monkey'.

I have also started to consult in NSW primary and high schools with regards to flipping (or blending) the classroom. If you are interested in having me come along to speak to your staff, details can be found here:

Saturday, May 3, 2014


Dear all,

I have launched on another grand experiment. I am 100 percent blending the classroom. That means for our complete Multiplication and Division unit I have gone TOTAL VIDEO.

No teacher to class teaching at all. Plenty of teacher to group, or to individual where needed (because I have more hands on time) but none of the aforementioned.

Students work throughout the maths unit, videos and tasks via our self-created google site. The lessons are listed in prescribed sequence, with instructions, and so are the tasks.

Early results are pleasing. Students like being able to rewind, restart, forward through videos. Videos are all assessment task critical. There is no fluff. The students know this. The qualitative assessment is partially in - so far students prefer this way. It is HEAVILY differentiated as they move at their own pace, watching simpler or more complex instructional videos as required.

I am then linking videos directly to specified Mathletics (an online student/teacher maths program) tasks so I can get instant feedback as to how students are progressing. All on my screen. No maths sheets. They simply use their books for working out. Seriously - it's like a class from the future. I just need a white suit. Everyone needs a white suit.

If the students do not perform adequately at the online task, they re-watch key parts of the video, or I intervene - teacher to student. I often give the students the choice; some re-watch the video; they know exactly where to go. Others prefer to be taught by myself directly. This type of formative assessment, and then targeted teaching, is in practice very simple. Thanks to Mathletics, I have their performance data, on my screen in real time. At a glance I am able to see who is succeeding or not, and at what tasks. I then become involved where and when necessary. And of course, I generally have the time to do so. Because I am not so busy 'teaching' I can spare the time for tutorials.

Next: Quantitative research. Has the total blend improved Maths results?

I can provide this information soon, by comparing this student bodies results with this total flip course, with results on earlier material which was only partially flipped. At this point this is the best I can do.

Looking forward to that.

Have also launched a new model of teaching. Calling it Teach, Together, Try. Basically an alliterated version of I do, We do, They do - based on the theories of gradual release teaching. Getting back to basics. Here's a video to check out if you are interested. Basically I am asking students questions in the video, and by correctly or incorrectly answering they can chart their progress. A little 'assessment as learning'' there.

That is, I Teach the skill. We do the skill Together. And then they Try the skill by themselves. Sound like common sense teaching? I hope so.

Here's a demo:

Dividing by ten 1: Teach, Together, Try

Reach me at if you ever want to talk FLIPPING (or blending)!

I have also started to consult in NSW primary and high schools with regards to flipping (or blending) the classroom. If you are interested in having me come along to speak to your staff, details can be found here:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Never Work Harder Than Your Students

Please be warned: the following information is about good pedagogy, and not necessarily flipping the classroom....

Dear all,

Welcome to Mr Burns' first book review!

Over the past year or so I have read two books (on education) that I thought were particularly noteworthy and worth sharing.

The first was 'Never Work Harder Than Your Students'. Great title; I had to read it; and I'm really glad I did. Though the title turned out to be a little misleading...

There were a few things I took from this book, but I think the stand-out idea for me was to literally write the assessment first (based off the outcomes), and then plan the unit.

I had been thinking a little along these lines for a while, but it was good to actually read a Doctor of education thinking the same way. Peter and I started deliberately programming like this last year and we found it very helpful in keeping our lessons on track, and ensuring that we really do assess what we value.

Furthermore, this text had some great ideas regarding the value of repeating student assessment until students manage to pass...

There were many other thought-provoking ideas in the text and I have an egg and bacon-stained copy at home if you would like to borrow it.

The second text I read (and my favourite) was a book called 'Brain Rules' by Dr John Medina. This is a brand-new book, chronicling the latest developments in brain research. This book was written particularly for teachers, students, learners, and generally anybody else (with a brain) who is interested in functioning more effectively and efficiently and human beings.

Two major ideas I thought worth sharing from that text include:

1) We are all visual learners! (Maybe a lot more than we thought?)

The brain (apparently) has 50 percent of its mass dedicated to using and interpreting one sense. This sense is vision. These parts of the brain are not shared. So this means that half of all grey-matter is about seeing. This is regardless as to whether we have ticked the visual, auditory and or kinesthetic box in any survey we may or may not have competed.

The lesson here for me: at all costs do not over- monologue, and always try to have some sort of visual aspect ongoing in the lesson.

I have noticed this in my own behavior when battling to pay attention in sermons! As soon as the preacher pops on a visual - I'm back! (And I’m apparently an auditory learner.)

2) Good news. There is a magic pill that cuts all mental and physical decline basically in half, and assists in recall and learning by nearly the same amount (30 per cent).

It is called exercise; and a case could be made that most of us do not do nearly enough.

This is not just exercise after work or school either- this is during.

In the United States some CEOs have installed stair-masters in their offices, enabling them to type emails and walk at the same time. My students have been told to wear joggers from 8:30am to 1:50pm, because now 5B just goes for 'jogs' at particular intervals; if we have been sitting for too long - we jog.

Here’s a thought; should we install a couple of stair-masters in any new built environments?

Again – I have a coffee and egg-stained paper-back at home if you are interested in reading this text. It was an enjoyable and informative book.

Thanks for sharing my thoughts – and feel free to feedback if you have any thoughts or ideas.

I have also started to consult in NSW primary and high schools with regards to flipping (or blending) the classroom. If you are interested in having me come along to speak to your staff, details can be found here:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Well. It's only been about a year since I posted. Let's recap.

1. Discovered Project-Based Learning. 

A bit of a convert. I suspect it is not the holy-grail of education for eternity, but there is a lot of good things about it. As such it is now a heavy component of my classroom, alongside teaching necessary content with my videos. Find out about PBL here...

2.  Linked PBL theory with FLIP practise

As mentioned - have fairly heavily linked FLIP classroom with the theory of project-based learning. "The two work very well hand in hand. Vids allow direct instruction...whilst in class project allows for vids to be used as information resources in achieving projects aims. In a nut-shell - PBL project generally engages students more than standard 'at desk' work. Student's learning is largely self-directed.

3. Really have stopped FLIPPING as much. More about BLENDING.

More of a fan of using videos in class, than as homework. Students can watch different vids in class as they work on separate lessons. Still set some vids for home - but very impressed by how liberating it can be to have multiple lessons on hand in video form when students require them - in class.


An engaging way for students to develop comprehension skills. Learn about reciprocal teaching here...

Perhaps you would like to peruse the many vids I have made?

Than check out...

Plenty to see....

I have also started to consult in NSW primary and high schools with regards to flipping (or blending) the classroom. If you are interested in having me come along to speak to your staff, details can be found here: