Is School Safe for kids? THAT article in The Conversation.

In the midst of the current debate about whether we should be getting kids back to school as quickly as possible, or taking it slowly slowly, this article came out in The Conversation, referencing a number of medical journal articles, documents from various government websites (typically Health Department publications), and articles from other news media publications in Australia.  As a high school teacher with medically vulnerable people in my family, I am naturally skeptical of any call to rush us back to school because, frankly, I don’t want members of my family to contract this virus from me. I also quite like my students, and so I think it’s important to be reasonably certain that no harm will occur by encouraging students to return to school too soon.  So I take a fairly careful look at any evidence that claims schools are safe.  I should add, I’m reasonably ok with the argument that when kids tend to contract COVID19, they tend to have mild symptoms, or remain asymptomatic, and also that they tend to spread it less than adults (a natural consequence of mild symptoms), although I wouldn’t say the evidence on this is yet proven beyond reasonable doubt. I also think there are broader issues to consider.

To the article – via Twitter, I was challenged to read through the sources of this article and provide a critique. Which is how we ended up here.  To be clear, I am not critiquing the scientific articles that are referenced in The Conversation article.  I don’t have the qualifications or experience for that. However, I do feel quite up to the challenge of critiquing the claims made in The Conversation based on the medical sources. That is, have the journal articles been fairly represented, or are there qualifications to the conclusions made by the authors in The Conversation based on limitations of the data or conclusions in the sources.  Or are the statement in The Conversation simply unsupported in the sources.

There should be nothing controversial about doing this. We teach high school students to evaluate these sorts of claims as part of their regular study in senior sciences and humanities.  This is also a regular part of the discourse in scientific literature. If you disagree with my conclusions, I’m open to having a conversation around that, and correcting the record if I believe it’s justified.

Methodology: So, my methodology in this is to identify the claims made in The Conversation, and evaluate those claims against the sources the authors have provided, taking in to account limitations of the studies, and other information that may be relevant to those sources. I’m going to assume that the sources used are in themselves reliable (which I’m sure the authors of the article in The Conversation won’t quibble with) within the boundaries of the limitations identified in the sources themselves, and the context of the data.  I won’t evaluate claims made based on media articles, because the methodology just isn’t there to assume that the claims in the media sources are reliable in the first place without going to their own sources, which aren’t always identified. I won’t seek to discredit the claims by referencing other sources that come to a different conclusion – I only want to investigate the basis of the claims made by the authors in determining whether their statements stack up or not. And I will do this in the order of claims and sources in the article itself. So, starting at point 1.


1. Kids get infected with coronavirus at much lower rates than adults

The first scientific source the authors refer to is this article. The title of the article is ‘Epidemiology of COVID-19 Among Children in China’ and is published in a reliable American Pediatrics journal.  It investigates the characteristics of of COVID19 in pediatric patients, mostly in Hubei Province, and concludes that children of all ages are susceptible to COVID19.  At no point does it compare the rate of infection with adults.  The methodology used in this report indicates that it only investigated children that were symptomatic, some of whom were confirmed to have been infected with the 2019-nCoV virus, and some of whom were assumed to be infected due to their symptoms.

The dates during which the data was gathered was from the 16th January to the 8th February. Chinese New Year occurred on the weekend of the 25th January, and the lockdown in Hubei began on the 23rd of January. So for most of the period of data collection, children were not at school, although some would have contracted the virus during the period before the lockdown when schools were open. However, this makes it difficult to draw conclusions on the safety of school, and transmissions at school, from this report.

A second source, claiming less than 150 children below 15 years have been infected opens a link to an index page on the Australian Department of Health website, and nothing on that page can support that claim. It seems likely to be true. I will note here that half of students in high school will be 15 years and older (including all the students I teach), something unfortunately not identified in The Conversation article as important.

A third source, also from the Australian Department of Health website does tend to support the idea that a small proportion of identified cases of COVID-19 in Australia are children, however, I think it is worth remembering the limitations of the data here in that for a significant period of time, testing was limited to people who had been overseas, or in close contact with people overseas AND were showing specific symptoms. Children tend to be under-represented in our travelling population, and it is accepted that children also tend to be more likely to be asymptomatic or have mild cases, so it should be no surprise that there are less identified cases in children.  The sort of data that would make this point more supportable would be data on testing by age, and the proportion of people testing positive in each age group.  The data may be out there, but it is not provided here.

None of the sources provided in this section of the article reliably support the idea that kids get infected with corona virus at a lower rate than adults.

2. Children rarely get severely ill from COVID-19

Going by the references provided, this is well supported, and backed up in other studies.  There certainly are cases of children and infants becoming ill and dying, often linked to a range pre-existing conditions, but these are rare.  I think this last point is important because parents of children with pre-existing conditions need to be aware of this, and not simply told their child will be safe at school.

So there are a couple of caveats to this claim, and that is that children rarely become acutely ill form COVID-19. We have no idea about the long term impacts  this virus on children or adults, simply because it is so new.

So I think the claim could be better stated as Healthy children rarely become acutely ill from COVID-19. Other children may be at higher risk.

It is worth noting this statement in The Conversation Article from this section: “A study in Iceland showed children without symptoms were not detected to have COVID-19. No child below ten years of age without symptoms was found to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 in this study.”

It is referencing the linked journal article, which states: “Children under 10 years of age were less likely to receive a positive result than were persons 10 years of age or older, with percentages of 6.7% and 13.7%, respectively, for targeted testing; in the population screening, no child under 10 years of age had a positive result, as compared with 0.8% of those 10 years of age or older.”

I believe the statement above in The Conversation is trying to extrapolate beyond the scope of the report it references.  Yes, it adds the phrase ‘in this study’, but given the number of other studies showing asymptomatic infection is quite common, the statement should have been further qualified to be reliable as it seems out of kilter with what else we know about this virus and kids.

3. Children don’t spread COVID-19 disease like adults

The first source includes the statement: ‘In these studies the index case of each cluster defined as the individual in the household cluster who first developed symptoms.’  If children do have either mild symptoms (as The Conversation authors claim earlier in their piece), or are commonly asymptomatic, as is widely believed, then it would be hard to identify the children in a household as the index case.  The data is compared to other zoonotic viruses where there is clear evidence that children can be index cases for a household, so there may be some validity to this claim. At the same time, the sample size of this report is only 31 households, which is relatively small.  I would like more data on this before being so confident about making this statement.

The second source, a study from the Netherlands, indicated that one study relied only on testing patients that arrived at a GP clinic, that already showed symptoms. A second study was still ongoing at the time this document was published and only preliminary results were published. This information would have been a good qualifier for this statement.

I think there is some data to support this statement, qualified by the fact that the data on this is not yet overwhelming (in fact the second source makes it clear that continued study is necessary and ongoing).

4. School children in Australia with COVID-19 haven’t spread it to others

Australia has been very fortunate to have a relatively small caseload of infections, which equally means very few cases in schools at all.  So there is a very small sample on which to base this claim.  The statement makes a much stronger case than the data allows.  There is no attempt here to reference data from other countries where there are many more cases.  If data from abroad isn’t relevant in Australia, then perhaps the authors could have explained why.

This sort of statement, which is unsupported except for the absence of evidence, is the sort of statement that is true, until it isn’t. However, there is now at least one cluster in a child care centre in Sydney, with another two centres undergoing contact tracing at the moment.  There is also the significant cluster in Marist College, Auckland, in which students have become infected, most likely from staff or other adults. If children do become infected, their parents and families are not going to be less upset or worried because they became infected from their teachers instead of from their friends. Perhaps a better claim to investigate is whether children are becoming infected at schools generally, not whether they infect each other.

So, this statement is mostly true, for Australia, so far, but makes no effort to investigate experiences in other countries, and ignores other paths of infection for students, other than other students.

5. There is no evidence closing schools will control transmission

Only one of the three sources referenced in this section refers specifically to data from the current novel corona virus pandemic.  I cannot find anywhere in this quite substantial report that makes any statement that supports the claim that there is no evidence that closing schools will control transmission.  In fact, it claims that of five key strategies used throughout Europe to control the spread of the pandemic, only Lockdown is more effective than School Closures, and that School Closures is equally effective as the other three key strategies undertaken in Europe of Social Distancing, Self-Isolation and cancelling Public Events. Definitions for these strategies are available in the report from the link at the start of this paragraph.

From the report:

For context, I did hear some reports stating exactly this claim from a study from the University College London, but when the report was analysed in detail, the actual finding was the school closures without other measures would have little impact. So it is the impact of multiple strategies acting together, including school closures, that has resulted in the slowing of the pandemic in Europe.


When I first read this article, I took it on face value, noting that it was referenced using what appeared to be reasonably reliable sources and journals. It’s only when reading the actual sources that some of the problems with the claims becomes evident.

In any case, the general gist, that schools are safe for students in terms of infection from other students, may be reasonably supported, but with some pretty heavy caveats that our politicians generally fail to make  explicit

  • Students 15 or over may need to be treated as adults in terms of transmission.
  • We don’t yet know if there are long term impacts on the health of children if they contract the virus.
  • Adults must practice social distancing as in every other sphere of society. This includes parents (so drop off at the school gate only, no visiting classrooms) and staffrooms, lunchrooms and other places adults congregate.
  • Vulnerable people need to isolate (A school near me has 60 teachers classified as vulnerable).
  • Students and adults practice good hygiene, with soap and sanitiser readily available
  • Schools are thoroughly cleaned throughout the day, particularly high traffic areas
  • Activities like sport can’t go ahead.

A lot of those caveats will actually make it very difficult for schools to open for the entire cohort of their student body. In some cases it would make it impossible.  Trying to get schools back to normal also ignores the fact that this generates an awful lot of movement around our community, both of children and adults, which in itself increases the risks for infection amongst our school communities.

Frankly, school closures is not just about students.  It’s about communities, and needs to be thought of in that context.  Is it ideal? No, but we’re not closing school as some sort of grand educational experiment. It’s a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic.  There’s a long way to go still before it’s resolved. Let’s not rush decisions based on incomplete data. Let’s not forget the lesson of thalidomide.  It was years before the medical community understood the impact of thalidomide on unborn children. For the children and their parents, the consequences were lifelong. We still have such a limited understanding  of the virus. For the sake of the children in our society, we need to slow down, and be certain of the decisions that we make.

Integrating 21st Century Skills & the Gradual Release of Responsibility Framework

Ok, the title is a bit of a mouthful, but I’m hoping that it doesn’t come across as a bit of a jargon-fest.

21st Century Skills

I’m a strong support of the integration of 21st Century Skills into our curriculum, not because they’re particularly techy or trendy, but because they’re really just common sense skills that will help anyone whether it’s the 21st Century, the 22nd, or even the 12th (although it’s a bit late for us to help those people now).

There are a number of documents and programs that attempt to define what the 21st Century Skillset is, and the one I tend to use the most is one developed by Microsoft.  I like their work on this because it clearly defines what we can expect to see students doing in class for each of skills, and even describes different levels of use in the classroom, from very basic to advanced (see here for their 21st Century Learning Design rubrics and documents, 21CLD)

In the 21CLD documents, the 21st Century Skills are listed as Collaboration, Knowledge Construction, Real World Problem Solving and Innovation, Self Regulation, Skilled Communication, and The Use of ICT.

The Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) Pedagogical Framework

GRR is a structured pedagogical framework that, as the name suggest, gradually moves the focus of learning from the teacher to the student (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983).  It was developed from Zygotsky’s idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1989).  There are four distinct phases in GRR.

  1. Focussed Lesson: the skill or process to be taught is explicitly modelled by the teacher, with students passively observing.
  2. Guided Instruction: students attempt the skill or process modelled in the first stage, one step at a time, with teacher support or guidance, rather than modelling.
  3. Collaborative Learning: students continue to improve their skills at their own pace, but with the support and guidance of their peers rather than the teacher.
  4. Independent Tasks: students apply their learning in new situations.

The characteristics of learning in the first two phases are best described by the learning theory Behaviourism (Schuh & Barab, 2008).  Behaviourism describes learning as direct transmission of knowledge from teacher to student, and as wholly teacher-directed.  Behaviourism does not require students to be highly engaged in their own learning, merely compliant with teacher directions.  Schlechty (2011) describes this level of engagement as Ritual Compliance, in which students have a low commitment to the work, and display low attention to the task at hand.  This is not to say that students cannot display high engagement with a task at these phases of GRR, but it is not necessary that students be highly engaged in order to have success at these phases.

Phase three requires students to be more highly engaged in their work for success.  The explicit requirement for collaboration between students in phase 3 requires us to look beyond Behaviourism as an appropriate Learning Theory to other theories.  Cosmopolitanism describes learning where knowledge is constructed by the student, collaboratively with peers, from a variety of sources, including but not limited to, the classroom teacher (Schuh & Barab, 2008). That is, learning is not wholly teacher directed, and is not an individual task.  Sources of learning could include their own life experiences, peers, experts, or third party sources such as print media or digital sources from the internet.  In addition, knowledge is constructed by the student from this broad range of sources. For students to succeed at this phase of GRR, it is a requirement that students at least show a high level of attention to the task, given that they are no longer closely directed, even if they do not care about the task itself (ie have low commitment).  Schlechty (2011) describes this level of engagement as being Strategically Compliant, which is characterised as a behaviour where students work hard due to extrinsic motivations, such as a desire to improve grades, or other external rewards.  Learning is still teacher-led at this phase, but techniques such as Learning Intentions & Success Criteria (Hattie, 2005, p. 4), and Flipped Classrooms (Abeysekera & Dawson, 2015) work well as it allows students to take ownership of their own rate of learning, and measure their own success against externally-created criteria.

Phase four is the point in learning where we invite students to apply their knowledge and skills in new situations that are authentic and involve real world problem solving.  It is in this phase that students have the first real opportunity to choose an application for their new skills that are of personal interest to themselves, with guidance or advice from their teacher.  An alternative Learning Theory to Cosmopolitanism that applies to student learning in this phase is Enactivism (Schuh & Barab, 2008), in which students learn collaboratively, and through interaction with the world. For success in this phase, students need to show the full characteristics of Engagement as described by Schlechty (2011), that is, both high commitment and high attention to the task at hand.  Students must be intrinsically motivated, and so it is important that the teacher does not arbitrarily assign a task, but involves the students in identifying a task to work towards that is seen to be authentic for the students. PBL (problem based learning, or project based learning) (Buck Institute of Education, n.d.) can be a good a teaching technique that meets these requirements.

Integration of GRR with 21st Century Skills

In an initial attempt to integrate GRR with 21st Century Skills, the table below, shows a mapping between specific activities related to each 21st Century Skill, and the GRR phase in which that activity should be observed.


  1. In the 21CLD document, innovation is defined as putting students’ ideas or solutions into practice in the real world.
  2. The authenticity of a product/problem can only be decided by the audience or client, in this case, our students. This reinforces the idea that students must be involved in planning which problems to solve, as they student themselves must see the problem as authentic, not just the teacher.
  3. Accessing Learning Intentions and Success Criteria is defined as these being both available to students, and actively being used by students. Simply having them available for students is not enough to say they are being accessed by students.



Abeysekera, L., & Dawson, P. (2015). Motivation and Cognitive Load in the Flipped Classroom: Definition, Rationale and a Call for Research. Higher Education Research and Development,, 34(1), 1-14.

Buck Institute of Education. (n.d.). What is Project Based Learning (PBL)? Retrieved from BIE:


Hattie, J. (2005). What is the nature of evidence that makes a difference to learning? Retrieved March 4, 2017, from ACER Research:

ITL Research. (2010). 21CLD Learning Activity Rubrics. Retrieved from ITL Research:

Newman, D., Griffin, P., & Cole, M. (1989). The construction zone. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. (1983). The Instruction of Reading Comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8(3), 317-344.

Schlechty, P. (2011). Schlechty Centre on Engagement. Retrieved Novemeber 21, 2016, from Schlechty:

Schuh, K. L., & Barab, S. A. (2008). Philosophical Perspectives. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. v. Merrienboer, & M. P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology 3rd Edition (pp. 67-82). New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


The ‘Carrot and Stick’ of Engagement

With the diverse, and sometimes contradictory educational theory at our disposal about what works and what doesn’t work to engage and interest students, and what works and what doesn’t work to improve outcomes for students, experienced (and new) teachers often integrate the old ‘Carrot and Stick’ into teaching.  Whether it’s the stick of calling home, detention, or extra work, or the carrot of rewards, grades, small prizes and so on, it’s a regular part of teaching.  And why not – our personal experience tells us that it works.

A model I come back to quite frequently is the spectrum of engagement by Phil Schlechty.  It’s a model that describes the engagement that students display at any particular moment, described by their attention to tasks (high, low or distracted) , and their commitment to tasks (high or low).  It’s a useful tool, for me, to working out what might motivate a student to work a little harder.  If you haven’t read about it, it might be worth having a bit of a read of this. Or at least the first part.

Linking back to the carrot and the stick, sometimes we know that they don’t work.  They don’t care about rewards, or the threat of punishment doesn’t do anything either.  The little diagram below came to me while thinking about this this afternoon, so I thought I’d jot it down and share it.


It’s been quite a while since I blogged.  I’ve missed it.  Mainly because it’s such a great way to organise my own thoughts, and the feedback on those thoughts is useful too.

IWBNet 2017

This week I’ve had the pleasure to present at the IWBNet 2017 Teaching and Learning Conference at the Gold Coast.

Attached here are the slideshow used at the presentation, the blank unit plan template, a sample unit plan (for Year 11 Physics), and the table showing the synthesis between the 21st Century Skills and the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework.

The slideshow from the conference is here: IWBNet_Steve Pinel 2017

Unit Plan Template-2lcrh2i

Sample Physics Unit Plan-26ctrvq


The Power of Positive

We’ve got two small, white, yappy dogs, Charlie and Snickers.  Charlie is a bit older, maybe 10 years old, and is a beautifully behaved pet, if slightly anxious and nervous, like most small dogs. Snickers is insanely protective of his yard, scared of anything that moves, and responds by barking aggressively whenever he senses something.

When outside, Snickers often parades along the fence, and when hearing something, barks uncontrollably at a high pitch, for an extended period of time.  As you can imagine, it quite annoys the neighbours.  Despite a significant time spent training him, he rarely comes when called, and we often end up outside to shoo him back inside.

However, I recently discovered something.  If I call for Snickers to come home, and then tell Charlie what a good boy he is (loud enough for Snickers to hear), Snickers will stop barking, and head straight back inside.  The Power of Positive Feedback!

I’ll have to see if this works with 15 year olds as well.

Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset

We’ve had quite a few discussions at school about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, and I found these notes while tidying up for Christmas.  In summary, someone displaying a fixed mindset believes that the skills they have in a particular domain are innate, or that they cannot be improved through effort.  Conversely, when a person is displaying a growth mindset, they are working under the belief that work and effort can improve their skill in a domain.  Anecdotally, people can have a fixed mindset for one domain, and a growth mindset for another domain, and their mindset within a domain can even switch from day to day.

On my scribbled notes, I found this table, relating mindset to Schlechty’s engagement framework.

Fixed Mindset Growth Mindset
Level of Engagement Rebellion Retreatism Ritual Compliance Strategic Compliance Engagement
Attention Diverted None Low High High
Commitment None None None Low High

With my notes attached to this table, I have written that you can have a low commitment to your learning, yet still have a growth mindset, however an engaged student must display a growth mindset, by definition.

The development of a culture of a Growth Mindset, to me, could be a reasonable tool to move students from Ritual Compliance to Strategic Compliance and Engagement.


Cheers all, and have a great Christmas, as we all unwind and relax, and mentally recharge for a new school year in 2017.

Reward and Motivation

I’ve been reading some work on models of The Self, which attempts to model the link between our internal motives and values, with our external behaviours (amongst other things).  One of the difficulties that I have come across in my readings on engagement is to accurately identify the difference between students that are truly engaged, and those that are simply academically (strategically) compliant with the school system in order to achieve a grade.

Your motives (or motivation) is what allows you to operate in a specific sphere of life, or what pushes you to operate in a particular way in a specific sphere of life.  In spheres where you have high self esteem, your motives will allow you to excel, and push your boundaries.  Failure in these areas will not hurt your self-esteem too much, as long as there is the expectation of eventual success.  This is equally valid in academic and in physical domains.  In activities where your self esteem is low, your key motivation will act to protect your self-esteem, and avoid engaging in that activity, in order to not experience more failure (Branson, 2009, p. 13).

At the risk of complicating the framework any further, it seems that Reward and Motivation could be two other dimensions that could be used to identify student engagement level, along with Attention and Commitment already used by Schlechty in his work on engagement.  Considering, for the moment students who are truly engaged in their learning, then it is fairly clear that both their Rewards and Motivations are being internally driven.  Their reward is the leaning itself, and they need little encouragement from their teachers in order to continue their pursuit of learning.

Students who are working closer to the level of Strategic Compliance very obviously are looking for an external reward – they are looking for a specific grade outcome, or praise from teachers or parents for hard work.  I believe here that motivation is still internally driven.  As a teacher, we are unable to flick a switch to make a student care about grades or praise.  Yet, there are teachers who have the skill to develop this in students – perhaps this is something that can be looked at later, in terms of improving student engagement rather than measuring it.

Students who are Ritually Compliant are working only because the alternative is negative consequences, which say s quite plainly that both the reward and motivation for working are being developed externally, and come from the way the teacher runs the classroom.

Placing these in a table, it looks a bit like this:

Schlechty Levels of Engagement Rebellion Retreatism Ritual Compliance Strategic Compliance Engagement
Dimensions of Engagement Diverted Attention
No Commitment
No Attention
No Commitment
Low Attention
Low Commitment
High Attention
Low Commitment
High Attention
High Commitment
Reward & Motivation External
Student Goals Disrupting Learning Avoiding Learning Avoiding Punishment Learning for Grades Authentic Learning

Whether this provides us with a more reliable way of measuring students engagement or not remains to be seen, but in the meantime it should give us pause to reflect on what different strategies we can use to assist our students in producing their bet work, at whatever level of engagement they are currently at.


Branson, C. M. (2009). In search of authentic leadership. Linking Links Program. Brisbane.

Schlechty, P. C. (2011). Engaging Students: The next level of Working the Work. San

Francisco, CA, USA: John Wiley & Sons.

Whole School Engagement Essay

I’ll be presenting at the Pearson Teaching & Learning Conference in Melbourne later this year (November 2016), and as part of the preparation for this presentation, I have tweaked the essay I wrote when I first constructed the framework in 2015.  It’s a bit jargony in places, but if you’re interested in having the framework explained in a bit more detail, you’re welcome to have a read.  It’s maybe about 10 pages in total, plus some graphs and images.  Fully referenced, so if you’re keen to follow up on some of the details, you’ll be able to.

Whole School Engagement Essay

Ontology & an Ontological view of the world

If you are reading this hoping to understand what the above word and phrase mean, then the title may have lead you astray.  I am currently trying to complete some reading and a short response for a Masters unit to a question about an ‘Ontological view of the world’.  Obviously, if my students were to state that they didn’t understand a question that was asked, I’d hope they’d make some effort to understand the question before going too far with their reading & research.  So here’s my attempt to get my head around that phrase ‘Ontological view of the world’.

I’ve started with Ontology, and come across the definition that states it is ‘the study of the nature of being, or existence’.

Now, I’m not really sure what that means, but I do know what Geology and Biology are, which can be defined as

Biology: The study of the nature of living things

Geology: The study of the nature of rocky things (ok, so that’s a bit primary school, but I think that will do for the moment).

The adjective ‘Biological’ describes something that is related to the nature of living things, and similarly, Geological can be defined as something that is related to the nature of rocky things.

The phrase ‘Biological view of the world’, to me, is the lens you use when you investigate the nature and interrelatedness of living things, and a ‘Geological view of the world’, to me, is the lens you use when you investigate the nature and interrelatedness of rocky things.

Therefore an ‘Ontological view of the world’ must be lens you use when you investigate the nature and interrelatedness of being, or existence.

Let’s see how that goes.