We communicate everyday, but so our classrooms allow students to communicate with authentic, external audiences in ways that mimic real jobs? Can we provide students with opportunities to work with real experts to prepare them better for life and work outside school?

Here is a rubric we developed to look at some aspects of communication in the classroom. Let us know if you think it’s helpful for thinking about communication in a school setting.




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Critical and Creative Thinking

Critical and creative thinking is a general capability expressed throughout the Australian Curriculum. What’s the best way of developing it? How can you assess it? Is it applicable to all subjects? Does it look the same in every subject? Is it transferable from one subject to another? We don’t have answers to all these questions but…

Here is a rubric we developed to look at some aspects of critical and creative thinking in the classroom. Let us know if you think it’s helpful for thinking about this general capability in a school setting.


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Problem Solving

Problem solving is an essential work skill, and in increasing demand for the future, according to the world economic forum and the foundation for young australians. Are our classrooms giving students enough opportunities to develop their problem solving abilities?

Here is a rubric we developed to look at some aspects of problem solving in the classroom. Let us know if you think it’s helpful for thinking about collaboration in a school setting.


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The uncertainty of STEM education

Girls in STEM PLC @ASMS– A series of questions for STEM education.

What’s the next shift in STEM pedagogy? What works in schools?

In a world of constant stimulation, what is the strength of classrooms? How do we maintain student engagement in class and make them want to come to school?

How can we best flip learning or content, and keep the exciting stuff for the classroom e.g. simulations, puzzles, problem solving, experiments?

How do we harness automation in content delivery? How do we restructure our role as teachers and educators to develop skills, offer opportunities, and create connections for students?

How do we link teachers with experts for projects e.g. with statisticians or scientists? How do we give benefit to all involved, and meet the limitations of schools and their schedules?

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The future of STEM

Girls in STEM PLC @ ASMS– The Future of STEM and how it impacts education

Imagine you’re a 14 year old. How do you know what you want to be when you grow up? Your teacher, doing some course counseling, asks “What do you want to do?”. It’s not a helpful question, especially given the warnings that students we teach now may grow up to have a job that doesn’t exist yet. Speakers from the Flinder’s University New Venture Institute suggest asking “What are you passionate about?”.


The world is changing rapidly. The job market is changing rapidly. We are in the Fourth Industrial Age. If you watch the video from the World Economic Forum above, you might notice that all the revolutions are happening in the STEM space. In fact, most of the innovation is happening at the edges – where disciplines connect and people have careers that cross boundaries. Where science and technology meet to create AI-enhancing medical diagnostics where business and technology meet to create secure blockchain-based supply chains from producer to consumer, or where technology and biology converge to produce cyborg embedded bio-tech.

The future is a rapidly changing one. The instability and uncertainty of the future is anxiety-inducing! Yet, there are great opportunities and it’s claimed that today’s generation are the most powerful students who can quickly transform society for good. That’s a scary thought given what my year 9 class looks like most days, but it’s true that students have access to so much empowering technology. With a few clicks, anyone can create a professional looking design or have a complete website built. Anyone can start a social media movement for good that goes viral overnight, or start online bullying that can bring someone down overnight. The power is immense.

Going back to the idea of a changing job market: NVI says personal branding for people is a skill set that students need to develop. What they know isn’t necessarily going to get them a job – it’s the skills they can demonstrate and bring to a position. It’s likely to become a ‘gig economy’ in some sectors – you sign on for a project, then move on. It will be important to have an ability to blend and work across disciplines.

So, the explicit teaching of transferable skills, and not just content knowledge, is going to be vital for our students. Embedding skills of agile design thinking, entrepreneurship, creativity and critical thinking, collaboration and communication across all subjects is needed. Every other industry is being impacted by technology, and so will education. Technology is already being harnessed for automating content delivery in classrooms – the differentiator for humans is in skill development.

The question remains: as educators, what is the most important thing we must do now?

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One rubric to unite them all

I didn’t ever think I’d become the sort of teacher that gets excited about assessment and reporting. Boring! Yet along the way with colleagues, amazing assessment structures for middle school have revolutionised the way we design our courses, teach our lessons, respond to students, give feedback, and define the grades for reports. But first, the story of how it came to be.

I started out teaching using marking schemes – 1 point for this, 2 points for that, added up to 25 points for the task. This is what I was taught, what was modeled and what was surrounding me in my school. After a couple of years, I knew this wasn’t cutting the mustard for a few reasons – it didn’t give enough descriptive feedback for students to know how to improve, a new marking scheme had to be created for every task (often leading to “bonus marks” or “presentation marks” to make the total add up to a nice number). It didn’t encourage students to give greater depth in their answers, as it limited them to the number of points being given. The other issue is that our middle school marking is reported A-E, and marking schemes give a percentage which isn’t clear what grade it relates to. I found that marking schemes didn’t lend itself to rich, open and authentic tasks – but closed tasks of limited challenge (like finding facts and sticking them on a poster). Low quality, busy work tasks abound in this space.

Eg. Marking Scheme for a poster on famous scientists

Title 1 mark

Introduction 2 marks

Picture included 1 mark

About the person 3 marks

References 2 marks

Presentation 1 mark

Total 10 marks

e.g. Marking Scheme for a practical report

Aim 1 mark

Hypothesis 1 mark

Materials 2 marks

Method 3 marks

Results – table 3 marks

– graph 6 marks

Discussion 10 marks

Conclusion 2 marks

Safe working skills 2 marks

TOTAL 30 marks

So we moved to rubrics. Rubrics give descriptions of what is is seen at each grade band, A-E. They can be time consuming to write for each task, but give more description of what’s expected to be seen for each grade. They allow for more open ended tasks, leading to extension for gifted students. We’ve played with single point rubrics, which are meant to save time in making rubrics for each task, but found them to be more time consuming writing comments either side, and not as helpful for students to guide them. We still found that task-specific rubrics were assessing non-intended curriculum items like presentation, creativity, spelling, use of colour, inclusion of pictures and design. While nice, these items are not related to the student’s thinking or understanding. They are not part of the Australian Curriculum achievement standards for our subject, so really had to go.

Enter the One Rubric.

One assessment rubric for the entire year, aligned against achievement standards. One rubric for all tasks in a subject, and possible across multiple year levels. One rubric for use in every topic, to ensure quality task design and consistent assessment across a cohort of students. One rubric that allows for moderation of tasks, but still allows individual teachers to have choice and creativity in the contexts and tasks they set for students. One rubric that encourages students to extend themselves, and that allows tracking of student progress over a year that can be displayed to parents and students (see image at top).

From the Australian Curriculum (AC) achievement standards or band descriptors, each description of achievement can be converted into items in a rubric. From this rubric, just the items being assessed in each task e.g. an assignment, a practical report, a design, a research task, can be highlighted. For starting points for wording, looking to senior curriculum (e.g. SACE) assessment rubrics can be helpful, as can department assessment and reporting guidelines. This is not a new idea – it happens in every SACE subject with their Performance Standards. However, within AC middle schools, as there is no assessment rubric documented in the AC, how it is assessed varies widely.

Benefits to using a One Rubric:

  • consistency in assessment between classes/teachers.
  • ease of designing assessment tasks that fit with the intended curriculum – you create the task sheet, copy the rubric in, highlight the criteria you want to assess and it’s done.
  • flexibility and creativity in designing tasks within a task type e.g. inquiry.
  • ability to track student progress in all assessment work (formative/summative; for/of learning) over a year and report on progress. Parents find this useful to view, as they can also track both achievement and progress over the year.
  • provides data to help inform instruction and formative assessment e.g. if students are not progressing or achieving in ‘justified conclusions’ criteria, the introduction of scaffolds (like CER) can help support the development, and the impact of this intervention can be tracked over time.
  • students can peer-mark, self-mark, and co-design tasks with the underlying support of a One Rubric.
  • provide a structure to the documentation so teachers and schools can be confident that they are assessing the intended curriculum, and can map assessment to the whole curriculum across a year.

Considerations when using a One Rubric:

  • Using a One Rubric puts a strong emphasis on the intended curriculum – in this case, the AC. There are schools and teachers that I’ve seen who either don’t teach (just) the AC, or they teach the content but do not assess using the AC. You’ll need to work out what works in your school context.
  • This One Rubric is subject based. When considering inter-disciplinary teaching (or PBL styles), it isn’t necessarily going to work for all tasks. Strong discipline knowledge is essential for interdisciplinary work, so a One Rubric can be used in developing subject specific skills, processes and knowledge. This can then be applied in interdisciplinary work. Generally, the benefits of interdisciplinary tasks (and what they assess) is the critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, application of subject knowledge to new contexts, collaboration and communication. These General Capabilities tend to form the backbone of interdisciplinary assessment rubrics (like the performance standards in Integrated Studies).


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What’s in that junk food?

Thematic units of work with driving questions… this unit is aligned to Year 9 Biological Sciences in the Australian Curriculum.

Multi-cellular organisms rely on coordinated and interdependent internal systems to respond to changes to their environment

Ecosystems consist of communities of interdependent organisms and abiotic components of the environment; matter and energy flow through these systems

Driving Question: What’s in that junk food?

Hook: Empty a school bin and collect (with gloves) all the junk food wrappers that are inside. Sort the wrappers by classification (e.g. chips, sugarary, chocolates, biscuits) and graph the results. Write down some of the common ingredients sounds in these items that are being eaten by the school community.

Challenge One (SUGAR): Many of the junk food items contain sugar. Is this a good thing tbe eating?

Learn about the nervous system and hormones in multi-cellular organisms.

Use this base knowledge to inquiry further with a research task into the impact of sugar and other ingredients on homeostasis in the body e.g. diabetes and other hormonal diseases.

Challenge Two (PALM OIL): Palm Oil goes by many names, but is a cheap and key ingredient in many chips, biscuits and other junk foods.

Learn about ecosystems and environments through direct instruction and prac-activities.

Use this knowledge to design, perform and report on a practical field investigation into the use of palm oil on orangutan habitat. This might include designing a suitable enclosure for conservation of an endangered species that mimics its natural habitat.

Challenge Two (PLASTIC WRAPPERS): Most of the rubbish bin was probably plastic waste. Single use plastics end up in our oceans, and creates havoc for marine ecosystems.

Learn about ecosystems and environments through discovering the impact plastic wrappers from school has on the environment around it.

Use this knowledge to design, prototype, test, iterate and present on a possible solution to plastic waste in the school.

Closure/reflection: Present ideas to an authentic audience – pitch rubbish solutions to school council, talk to a zoo about enclosure design.

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What do we need to survive on Mars?

Thematic units of work with driving questions… this unit is aligned to Year 9 Physical Sciences in the Australian Curriculum.

Energy transfer through different mediums can be explained using wave and particle models

Driving Question: What do we need to survive on Mars?

Hook: Introductory videos on becoming an interplanetary species.

Research what the conditions on Mars are like and how they differ to Earth. Share in a collaborative document/forum. Brainstorm what humans would need in order to survive on Mars.

Challenge One (HEAT): The temperature on Mars gets really cold. One of our first problems to solve in living on Mars may be how to survive in cold temperatures and stay warm.

Learn about heat as an energy form and about energy transfer through direct instruction and mini-prac activities.

Use this knowledge to design, perform and report on a practical investigation into the best insulation (best thickness, best colour, optimal material) in a space suit to keep an astronaut warm on Mars.

Challenge Two (LIGHT): Mars is really far away from Earth. What are the best ways to communicate between Mars and Earth and between colonies on Mars itself?

Learn about light and sound as energy forms and about reflection, refraction, total internal reflection, electromagnetic spectrum and waves through direct instruction and mini-prac activities.

Use this base knowledge to inquiry further with a research task. Questions to choose from for inquiry could include:

Why we can’t live stream from Mars?

What would need to happen to get a rainbow on Mars?

You would need to communicate over long distances between colonies on Mars, with large and frequent dust storms. Research the benefits of communicating using optical fibres in these conditions over radio communication.


‐ Would you want to go to Mars? Why or Why not?

‐ What do you see as the advantages/successes of going to Mars?

‐ What do you see as the disadvantages/difficulties/struggles of going to Mars?

‐ What technologies will need to be developed to go to Mars?

What else do we need to survive on Mars? Food? Shelter? Transport? Communication? Clothing? Oxygen/Atmosphere? Invent a technology and sketch a blueprint of it.

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Driving questions, thematic units


When I started teaching (13 years ago), I was handed a textbook and told to teach year 8 and 9 science.

There was no unit plan, no lesson plans, no instructions on what topic to teach… In those days we followed SACSA, but it was more like following the chapters in the textbook. If the textbook didn’t match up with the curriculum, you just taught it anyway.

I remember getting relief lessons with instructions like “read pages … of the textbook. Write a glossary of all the bold words. Do the questions on page….”

In the past 5 years we’ve thrown out the textbooks – we are better aligned to the curriculum, have more interesting lessons, build more skills in students, inquire deeper and have a lot more fun.

In the move to teaching-sans-textbook, the first step was to change from 3-4 week chapter units to term based long units of work. With 4 strands in the science understanding curriculum, it matches up neatly with the 4 terms. Next, we developed different tasks that encouraged inquiry, skill development, and were now possible with the longer time frames. For example, design inquiry and research inquiry tasks. Lastly, once comfortable with long term units, we started to manipulate the work to fit in with a driving question that had a real world focus. These produced our thematic units. Once that was in place, we tidied up some of the edges – checking to make sure we had a good variety of tasks, checking to make sure we still aligned with the Australian Curriculum, using a common assessment rubric on all inquiry tasks no matter what the topic.

For more benefits of teaching without a textbook, read our Keep Calm and throw out your textbook post.

Have a look at collaborative planning and BYOSTEMA posts for examples of thematic work.

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