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When assessment is about learning.


This paper describes the implementation of an interdisciplinary unit entitled Maths to save the sea. The unit was originally implemented in a class of middle years' students in a Queensland high school using an outcomes based model. I have since worked on the unit to include essential learnings rather than outcomes, the preferred model in Queensland in 2008. Maths to save the sea is the result of an effort to manage the many and varied expectations of teaching students in the middle years. The unit incorporates literacy and numeracy, interdisciplinarity, middle years' signifying practices (Pendergast & Bahr, 2005) and concepts of authentic and productive assessment. What makes this unit interesting is that this was achieved within a context of a traditional and conservative high school where high stakes, criterion-based assessment was the norm. What follows is a discussion of the original unit presented to Year 8 students, with the addition of essential learnings in the Queensland State school system in 2008. The next section looks at the context of classroom implementation.

Rationale and classroom context: Low achieving students and high stakes assessment

As the national testing regime in Years 3, 5, and 7 attests, all children in Australia are meant to reach externally arbitrated standards. This places immense pressure on students who are termed low achieving. By the time this unit was first implemented, students in my class had heard themselves described in that way for eight years. Add this stigma to the exigencies of adolescence, and the class in general was a difficult one to teach. The students were evidencing the process of synaptic pruning, coming to terms with gender identity, experimenting in moral development and were capable of resisting the ways they had been constructed as adolescents (Pendergast & Bahr, 2005). These students had become accustomed to failure and ways to avoid failure. Generally as well, there is often a slowed academic development in this age group. Often there is the expectation that all students can meet the relevant outcomes in each of the Key Learning Areas. This expectation, however, does not universally apply to this age group. Many students, and especially those with languages other than English, have not necessarily gained the expected basic levels of literacy and numeracy by the middle years (Luke et al., 2003).

The tensions here are palpable. I was faced with a number of issues which needed to be thought through before the unit was written. I first used experiential understandings and gut instinct and decided that students would:

* achieve to the appropriate level outcomes in Mathematics and Studies of Society and Environment (Level 4 outcomes, as per the Queensland Syllabus);

* have several opportunities to meet outcomes (formative and summative);

* experience a rich environment where they would learn collaboratively (teaming), be exposed to higher order thinking, enter into strong relationships with teachers and peers and have the chance to negotiate their work and how learning would occur;

* be able to make connections between the Key Learning Area content of Mathematics and Studies of Society and Environment and learn the ways of knowing, the tools and heroes of each discipline;

* be immersed in the literacies of each discipline and be able to discuss the ways they use each literacy to make meaning

* be engaged in rigorous, appropriate and future oriented learning.

Organising ideas for the unit:

The unit Maths to save the sea was framed by three questions that were derived from Wyatt-Smith, Cumming and Elkins (2005, p. 271). These were:

1. What is it that students will know?

2. Why is this knowledge valued?

3. How will effective instruction emerge to find out what students know?

Assessment and learning were re-framed so that the students in the middle years' class would have positive consequences from their learning. The next section of this paper looks at the three questions which underpinned the unit.

What is it that students should know?

The unit was written from the school's curriculum framework and incorporated the demands of Semester One's Mathematics examination, the content of which roughly aligned with the Level 4 outcomes from the Queensland Junior Mathematics Syllabus and the Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE) core content of environmental sustainability and the production of a business plan. This content would currently align with the Essential Learnings produced by the Queensland Department of Education, Training and the Arts (2008), notably the following SOSE Essential Learning example:
   Interrelationships between human activity and environment can
   result in particular patterns of land and resource use, and can
   cause environmental problems, and students should respond to local
   and global issues by taking action in planned and enterprising
   ways. (Queensland Department of Education, Training and the Arts,
   2008, p.1)

In mathematics, students had to cover disparate topics ranging from percentages, fractions, profit and loss to the geometry of squares and triangles. The Head of the Mathematics Department was concerned only that the content was taught and tested. This left professional license for teachers to choose how the content would be addressed. I used the concept of a big idea or open question, which would encompass disparate content and allow students to experience success in the examination.

The original unit was organised around an outcomes framework. Learning outcomes are descriptions of observable demonstrations by learners. A learner demonstrates learning outcomes at one level before working towards a demonstration of learning outcomes at the next level. Thus learners needing more time or needing different or additional contexts are not forced to move on to the next level.

Open questions

In Studies of Society and Environment, students had to engage with the economics of businesses and I combined this with environmental issues. The question, How can businesses be profitable and environmentally aware, emerged. This question contextualised the task of writing a business plan. In my mind profitable incorporated the Mathematics content to be assessed. The big idea incorporated knowledge I had only recently gained about the Guylian Chocolates Company. This company sells chocolates in the shape of sea creatures and the profit made from every chocolate sea horse in every chocolate box sold worldwide is given to a foundation whose aim is to protect endangered seahorses. Here was the catalyst for the unit, and some amazing potential for Mathematics activities--percentage of seahorses in box, fraction of seahorses in box, percentage of profit per box, size of box and so on. Students could learn about business plans by writing one for their own lunchtime business, the profit from which could be sent to a charity of their choice and to fund a trip to Sea World on the Gold Coast. This content appealed to the class and was timed to be implemented after the students had finished a unit on 'Survival Maths'. For that unit, students had been cast aways on a deserted island (my classroom). The school was located in Brisbane's bayside near the sea and many students loved the beach.

Sequence of lessons and lesson matrix

The matrix in Table 1 shows part of the unit's organisation, re-written to show Essential Learnings rather than outcomes. I have focused mainly on the work relating to Studies of Society and Environment. The full unit plan includes lesson sections in relation to the Mathematics content.

Why is this knowledge valued? Values which underpin a Middle Years Curriculum include:

* learning collaboratively;

* learner centred approaches;

* outcomes based assessment;

* flexibility;

* an awareness of ethics;

* community orientation, and

* strategic links (Cumming, 1998).

Most of these values were addressed in the unit. At the very least, an awareness of issues in the environment and an awareness that each individual can take action to improve the environment incorporates Bloom's Taxonomy, where knowledge is comprehended, applied, analysed, synthesised and evaluated. Each of these is a valuable tool for thinking. In the unit students were exposed to a variety of opportunities to use each part of the taxonomy and they went to and from each stage in the taxonomy. The next section looks at other values covered in the unit.

An awareness of ethics

Each student was also encouraged to value the emotional aspects and responses to the topic, to make judgements (even if negative), and to aim for exciting creations and ideas for improvements. Students not only considered the facts, but also had opportunities to think about the facts and to see what lay behind them. This is critical thinking at its best.

This knowledge is valuable because students are engaged in solving real world problems at a deep intellectual level. Interdisciplinarity is valued--in this case, as a means to show what the disciplines of Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE) and Mathematics have in common and in opposition. Students started to talk about the ways of knowing in each discipline and were introduced to some heroes in each discipline (SOSE--Guylian; Maths Fair Trade websites). Students learned that each discipline had different tools, but that these tools combined were more powerful than apart. Wyatt-Smith et al. (2005) observe that teaching is not so much about transmission as, 'providing situations that facilitate students making meaning in their own terms, based on their own prior experience and knowledge' (p. 272).

Learning collaboratively

In the teaming exercises, students used a variety of the skills they already possessed through verbal linguistic means, both inter- and intra-personally, in a manner which allowed for silent reading or bold movement. Students were encouraged to see their natural environment in new ways and to form a connection with that environment. Students could also be logical and mathematical about the financial success of ventures made by businesses in relation to environmental issues. Value was placed on the wealth of material and prior knowledge students in the middle years bring to their classrooms. Such activities provide relevance and connectedness to the students' worlds and opportunities to form their identities in relation to these matters. Students also formed a group identity as they experienced the group processes of forming, storming and norming.


Each of the four Productive Pedagogy dimensions (Department of Education, Queensland, 2002) were accounted for, particularly in relation to intellectual quality where substantive conversation occurred between students, students and teacher, students and non-class mates, Sea World administration, and so on. This bridged the gap between school and community. There was little opportunity for the teacher to own the classroom discussion through the IRE or initiation-response-evaluation sequence (Hardman, Smith & Wall, 2003), as most of the time students were engaged in group tasks. Middle years' education is more about student engagement than behaving well in a predetermined structure. The Head of Department for Mathematics seemed surprised that students could learn mathematical concepts without using IRE, the usual teaching method adopted in the school.

Learner centred approaches

Overwhelmingly though, the value of the knowledge taught in the unit resided in the success students achieved. Students were given the dignity of being winners from the unit's beginning. They could choose the sea animal to research and to support; they could choose the product they would make and sell at their lunchtime stalls, and they could choose costs and profits and accept losses. They could also organise their own trip to Sea World. Students in the middle years have a growing need for independence and the negotiated framework of the unit provided for this.

Strategic links

All of this required students to engage with literacy and numeracy and their problems with each. Students had to identify areas which needed improvement. To write their business plan, students needed a familiarity with an English genre and the functional grammar associated with a report or procedural text. This task provided an ideal opportunity to explicitly teach grammar and writing in context. To surf the net for ideas re the business plan and the sea creature they wished to save, students needed skill in the area of multiliteracies and the many ways of reading texts. Concepts of textual semiotics, reading in a variety of contexts for a variety of purposes, reading the mood of their group and reading the computer screen were each important. By the end of the unit, students had a repertoire of reading and writing practices so that rigour inhered within the process (Cumming, 1998). I was very much aware of literacy issues in the middle years, notably the sacrificing of deep literacy learning in favour of addressing the considerable increase in content area reading (Luke et al., 2003). There was also the problem of the assumptions made about the literacy and numeracy of this age group. As one would expect, there was a full range of levels of literacy competence within the group of students.

Assessment: How will effective instruction emerge to find out what students know?

The lessons were taught over a number of weeks using constructivist principles, including contextualised activities, meaningful tasks and the opportunity for students to draw on prior schema. Explicit teaching was used where necessary. The assessment timetable was incorporated into formative and summative assessment (see Table 2), so that students could learn as they were being assessed. The exam for Mathematics was broken down into its component parts and each section assessed as soon as students met the outcome.

Best practice in outcomes based assessment requires that learners can demonstrate outcomes, that instruction and content relate to the outcomes and are explicitly taught, and that the time to meet outcome is flexible because people learn in different ways and at different rates (Queensland School Curriculum Council, 2002). A key indicator of best practice is that learners can receive feedback on their performance immediately and in understandable terms, and can then independently monitor their self performance in terms of what they know and are able to do. Learning, teaching and assessment must be indivisible.

In Queensland today, the essential learning framework has similar expectations, but the essential learning students are to meet is on an A-E scale. I have not had the opportunity to implement this unit in an A-E environment, but I suspect that success with the Mathematics exam in this unit suggests that the unit would work well. Students did well on the Mathematics test.

The unit set out three culminating assessment items:

1. Students will learn how an economic enterprise such as chocolate manufacture can be used to fund wildlife preservation. Using the case study (Guylian Chocolates) as an example, students are to raise money to save a sea animal of their choice. Students will work in groups of five to set up stalls at lunch time to sell a product (e.g. Whalo-Fizz, Seal Slurpies). Students are to liaise with staff at the school tuckshop to assure the staff that products for sale will not be the same as provided by the tuckshop. A portion of the income or profit will go towards charity.

2. Students are to write a business plan for their lunchtime business, cost and resource their product, provide a business and brand name for their product and write a spreadsheet which will account for debits and credits. Each group will sell their product for two days in a fortnight.

3. Students are to take responsibility for one aspect of the planning involved with taking the class to Sea World. Group assignments include the organisation of:

* Contact before, during and after excursion with Sea World's Education Liaison Officer (letters, permission forms, risk assessment);

* Transport options from Brisbane to Sea World (comparative costs of bus trip, private cars, rail transport);

* Picnic lunches (cost, type, transport);

* Excursion worksheet (liaise with Sea World's Education Liaison Officer, online Sea World tasks, liaise with class teacher, printing and distribution).

Each of these summative assessments were linked to learning outcomes (essential learnings today), to pedagogy and assessment. All assessment items tested terminology, specific vocabulary and numeracy, and procedural knowledge. The summative assessments were not normative, but were aimed at showing the progress that had been made to students and parents. There was a good deal of risk taking and students were constantly engaged in self reflection: wondering whether their product would sell; if the stall would make a profit; whether presentation to their peers in group work would open them to criticism or applause (Wyatt-Smith et al., 2005), and finally whether or not the field trip organisation would work.

So that the summative assessment worked and students achieved the outcomes, there were three formative assessments:

* pre-tests, entrance and exit slips in the first few weeks to test prior knowledge and adjust the unit plan accordingly.

* group/personal analysis sheets (see Wyatt-Smith et al., 2005, p. 296) to determine how well each student was working in the group.

* Teacher conferences with each group to see how they were going and to offer advice. The conference questions were the same for each group. In-class time was devoted to the final write up of their business plan.

I then marked the unit with the times that formative testing would occur, as shown in Table 2.

Since the first implementation of the unit, I have looked at the assessment using Wyatt-Smith et al's (2005, p.278) dimensions of effective assessment in the middle years. Table 3 shows the ways that the hallmarks of quality assessment have been met.


The pressures on teachers of middle years' students are many. However, if teachers do the thinking prior to the implementation of the unit, it is possible to manage the competing tensions. Literacy in the middle years deepens as students are exposed to more content area reading and can no longer rely on the spoken word alone. Students must manage new linguistic forms used in written text such as the extended sentence and the paragraph. Students begin to learn that language has sub-sets and that discipline-related language uses sub-sets of terms not previously heard or used in the classroom (Maclean, 2005).

In the case of this unit, students were exposed to the sub-sets of terms in Mathematics, Studies of Society and Environment and Business. Teachers sometimes become overwhelmed at this point and often soldier on towards content area reading, rather than concentrating on deep curriculum literacy learning. In this unit, I have tried to show that a deeper understanding of interdisciplinarity helps. What students really must know in terms of any discipline is its ways of knowing, its tools and the heroes in each discipline. This provides the teacher with a reprieve from worrying about the content. Within this space, teachers quickly learn to make connections they may not have otherwise made because of the concern for discipline content. Maclean (2005) argues that classrooms need to be literate communities and that one 'way to build the classroom as a literate community is to base units of work around 'authentic' or service learning' (p. 109). The unit presented here has aimed to do this.


Cumming, J. (1998). Extending reform in the middle years of schooling: Challenges and responses.

Canberra: Australian Curriculum Studies Association.

Department of Education (Queensland). (2002). A guide to productive pedagogies: Classroom reflection manual. Retrieved April 4, 2008, from curriculum-framework/productive-pedagogies/pdfs/prodped.pdf

Department of Education, Training and the Arts. (2008). Queensland curriculum, assessment and reporting framework. Retrieved April 4, 2008, from qcar_white_paper.pdf

Hardman, F., Smith, F. & Wall, K. (2003). Interactive whole class teaching in the National Literacy Strategy. Cambridge Journal of Education, 33(2), 197-215.

Luke, A., Elkins, J., Weir, K., Land, R., Carrington, V., Dole, S., Pendergast, D., Kapitzke, C., van Kraayenoord, C., Moni, K., McIntosh, A., Mayer, D., Bahr, M. Hunter, L., Chadbourne, R., Bean, T., Alvermann, D. & Stevens, L. (2003). Beyond the middle: A report about literacy and numeracy development of target group students in the middle years of schooling (Vol. 1 and 2). Brisbane: J.S. Macmillan Printing Group.

Maclean, R. (2005). Literacies and multiliteracies. In D. Pendergast and N. Bahr, (Eds.), Teaching middle years: Rethinking curriculum, pedagogy and assessment (pp. 103-118). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin

Pendergast, D. & Bahr, N. (Eds). (2005). Teaching middle years: Rethinking curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Queensland Schools Curriculum Council. (2002).Characteristics of the best practice of an outcomes approach. PowerPoint presentation retrieved April 4, 2008, from Wyatt-Smith, C., Cumming, J.J., & Elkins, J. (2005). Redesigning assessment. In D. Pendergast and N. Bahr (Eds.), Teaching middle years: Rethinking curriculum, pedagogy and assessment (pp. 271-299). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin

Barbara Garrick | Griffith University
Table I: The unit matrix and design

(re-written to show how the
Essential Learnings apply)

KNOWLEDGE                  WAYS OF
AND                        WORKING

Interrelationships         Respond to local
between human              and global issues
activity and               by taking action
environments result in     in planned and
particular patterns of     enterprising ways
land and resource use,
and can cause
e.g. overgrazing and
erosion, overuse of
fossil fuels and carbon
dioxide emissions.

KEY LEARNING AREAS                             DURATION
AND YEAR:                                      OF UNIT:
Studies of Society and                         10 weeks
Environment, English,

CONTEXT                    SCHOOL
FOR                        PRIORITIES:

Students have              The school is
learned in class           situated near the
discussion that            beach. The
the seahorse               principal and the
display at Sea             curriculum plan
World is in                expect teachers
jeopardy because           to use the local
Seahorses in the           environment in
wild are under             their planning.
threat. They learn
that Guylian
donates the
money from
every seahorse
to saving the
seahorses. The
students are
encouraged to
take action
themselves and
to help an
endangered sea

LEARNING                              LESSON ONE

WEEKS ONE AND    Investigating the    Students hear
TWO              issue and making     testimonials
Orienting and    plans                about the
introducing                           destruction to
                                      populations and
                                      other sea

WEEK THREE       Early research       Students form
Group forming    and forming          their groups in
and storming     groups. Students     this lesson. They
                 decide on a          decide the sea
                 product to sell.     animal they
                                      would like to
                                      help. They decide
                                      on a product
                                      they would like
                                      to sell at morning
                                      tea or lunch, in
                                      order to save
                                      money to send
                                      to their chosen

WEEKS FOUR       Students make        Students work in
AND FIVE:        their product and    groups to
Enhancing and    explain their        complete the first
sorting          business plan.       draft of their
                                      business plan.

WEEK SIX                              In-class time is
                                      devoted to the
                                      final write up of
                                      their business
                                      plan. Teacher
                                      conferences with
                                      each group to
                                      see how they are
                                      going and to
                                      offer advice.

WEEK SEVEN       Summative assessment:
                 Students set up their stall at lunchtime
                 and sell their product.

LEARNING                            LESSON             LESSON
EXPERIENCES                         TWO                THREE

WEEKS ONE AND    Students log on    Students watch     Students are
TWO              to Guylian         Happy Feet - the   introduced to
Orienting and    Chocolate          scene where an     the Culminating
introducing      website and        animal has         Summative
                 learn more         plastic wrapped    Assessment. It
                 about the          around its neck    becomes clear
                 endangered sea     Students engage    that students
                 horse. They        in a class         need to work in
                 learn that much    discussion         groups to solve
                 can be done by     about ways to      a problem.
                 the business       solve this
                 community to       problem. They
                 save the           learn that they
                 seahorse.          can be active.
                 Students write
                 a paragraph
                 about their
                 reactions to
                 what they have

WEEK THREE       In their           Students work      Students work
Group forming    working groups,    in groups to       in groups to
and storming     students learn     complete the       complete the
                 the elements of    first draft of     first draft of
                 a business         their business     their business
                 plan: reason       plan.              plan.
                 for their
                 business; a
                 description of
                 what they are
                 trying to sell
                 and why; how
                 they will
                 supply their
                 and profits.

WEEKS FOUR       Formative          Students begin     Students
AND FIVE:        assessment:        making their       prepare for
Enhancing and    Students           product to         lunchtime
sorting          complete a         sell.              sales.
                 analysis sheet
                 to determine
                 how well each
                 student is
                 working in the

WEEK SIX         In-class time      In-class time      Formative
                 is devoted to      is devoted to      assessment:
                 the final write    the final write    Students submit
                 up of their        up of their        copy of their
                 business plan.     business plan.     business plan.
                 Teacher            Teacher
                 conferences        conferences
                 with each group    with each group
                 to see how they    to see how they
                 are going and      are going and
                 to offer           to offer
                 advice.            advice.

WEEK SEVEN       Major summative assessment item due:
                 Students will learn how an economic enterprise such
                 as chocolate manufacture can be used to resource
                 preservation of wildlife. Using the case study as an
                 example, students are to raise money to save an
                 animal of their choice. Students will work in groups
                 of 5 to set up stalls at lunch time to sell a
                 product. A portion of the income or profit will go
                 towards their charity. Students are to write a
                 business plan for their lunchtime business, cost and
                 resource their product, provide a business and brand
                 name for their product, and write a spreadsheet
                 which will account for debits and credits. Each
                 group will sell their product for two days in a

Table 3. Hallmarks of quality assessment

             Hallmark                           Description

Connectedness and responsiveness     The unit uses interests from
                                     outside school (local to Bayside,
                                     fishing both a hobby and a sport
                                     offered at the school)

Explicit recognition                 Students negotiated tasks with
                                     (sea creature they would like to
                                     help, the charity to receive
                                     funds, the organisation of their
                                     stall and products to make, the
                                     organisation of their trip to
                                     Sea World)

Tailored, diverse and balanced       The unit used a combination of
of learning and assessment           knowledges and a wide range of
options                              semiotic systems such as
                                     Mathematics and Studies of
                                     Society and Environment (SOSF),
                                     business Mathematics in a
                                     SOSF context, sections of
                                     Mathematics (percentages,
                                     fractions, profit and loss
                                     within a business plan).
                                     The metalanguage of each
                                     discipline was taught and
                                     The unit used a combination of
                                     assessment modes:
                                     Formative: divergent, authentic
                                     questions (big ideas), checks on
                                     group work and the informal
                                     language of group work, checks
                                     on literacy knowledge (pre-tests,
                                     draft of business plan, self
                                     assessment, check of literacy
                                     skills such as terminology,
                                     specific language, vocabulary
                                     and procedural language).
                                     Summative: team work assessed in
                                     relation to the lunch time stall,
                                     disciplinary knowledge tested
                                     with the maths exam and business
                                     Assessment about gaining
                                     knowledge rather than remembering
                                     There was an encouragement of
                                     risk taking.

Room for teacher and student         Self assessment (Teacher
talk and other interactions          constantly discussed progress
around quality                       with students and formatively
                                     assessed these.
                                     A self- reflection journal could
                                     be added as a literacy assessment
                                     and as a means for the students
                                     to have a record of their
                                     journey. Interrelationship of
                                     teacher student talk was used
                                     as a means to frame the literacy
                                     demands of the Key Learning Areas
                                     and to help students make meaning
                                     around what they were asked to do.

The deliberate integration of        The unit used communication as a
a mix of assessment types            member of a working group, with
                                     the teacher during formative
                                     assessment, internet searches
                                     and communication with staff
                                     at Sea World re excursion
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Title Annotation:educational programs and classroom techniques
Author:Garrick, Barbara
Publication:Literacy Learning: The Middle Years
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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