What I meant to talk about at the ALARM PD

Sorry, this is a long post!

So I’ve been asked to present at an ISER professional development day on ALARM (A Learning And Responding Matrix). I have 15 minutes to talk about how I have implemented this in my classroom.  I have been introduced as an ALARM project officer, available to schools in the region to assist in the implementation of ALARM.  I follow the amazing Max Woods, the passionate creator of this program, who presents using whiteboards in a logical and passionate sequence.  Then Barnie Ellvesen and Gillian Hollingsworth, two other remarkable leaders in using and implementing ALARM both present using very professional looking Powerpoints.  They too are logical and coherent.  I have some images ready on my iPad and a plan about what I want to say, but due to screen resolution issues they won’t display on the giant screen at the venue.  Massive tech fail in front of 100+ teachers. I’m looking like a professional educator now.  I forget the notes that I have written and my subsequent ramblings are a little scattered and heavily influenced by the rush of adrenalin that always accompanies public failure.

After calming down and convincing myself that it was not a total failure, I have used this incident to motivate me to create that blog I have been procrastinating about to share what I really wanted to say.

I attended the first ALARM 2 day PD with around 250 teachers from the Illawarra and South East Region.  I felt on that day, as I still feel now, that it was one of the most practical and worthwhile PD I have done on a teaching and learning strategy.

I would say I was doing about 85% to 90% of things covered By Max and his team from Freshwater High School, but I was not using a coherent or integrated approach.  I had the teaching of the content down pat.  I did and still do this very well.  However, I had struggled with how to move my students from content to concept. I was unsure of how I could explicitly teach them those higher order thinking skills and address the needs of a HSC course.  I spent these 2 days having a number of light bulb moments, as were a number of other teachers that I spoke with during these days. I now had an explicit way of taking my students on that journey.

I was using the SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) Taxonomy as a framework to improve my teaching but it had not given me explicit tools to go from content to concept like ALARM has.  These 2 methods can work well together.  If you are interested the book below is a good place to start.


I implemented ALARM with my HSC Biology class in Term 4 of 2012. They are a group of students who don’t like change and they didn’t like this one.  They were already frustrated that I did not just give them notes. But I persisted with all the the teaching and learning strategies that I knew worked and the ALARM matrix simply became one of those many tools – but in some ways, the most powerful.

What I have seen develop is a group of students who are making conceptual links between topics without me having to ‘do it for them’.  They all saw the link between the process of protein synthesis and its use as biochemical evidence for evolution without any input from me and discussed this as a class with no input from me.  It just came up in their conversation as they worked. 

I have also seen a remarkable improvement in the quality of their writing. The easiest way to describe this is to show you. (The colours are based on a highlighting system presented at this week’s PD: green = name and define, blue = description, yellow = explanation and orange = analysis). The 2nd response is 2 weeks after implementing ALARM and whilst it still has issues, it is miles ahead of the pre-ALARM response.


This student continues to make remarkable improvements in his responses but more impressive for me is his increased confidence in his own abilities and his level of engagement in the course work.  He has gone from a passive participant in class to a student who is actively reading his textbook before the lesson on that content.  He is asking questions and seeking out extra information beyond the syllabus. I believe he has been lifted from a Band 3 to a high Band 5 or 6.

I have been providing feedback on student responses using a system called Goals, Medals and Missions


After constructing a matrix for a concept. Students write a response to a question (past HSC or one I have made up). We set a goal for their writing.  They write their response and give their own feedback on what they have done well (Medals) and what they could do better (Missions). I then provide my feedback and we negotiate the goal for the next response.  These Missions meet the individual needs of each student and allow me to differentiate my teaching.

Goals have included a list of terms to use in the writing, improved sentence structure, incorporating knowledge or examples from outside the syllabus, using tables or dot point, ensuring there is a description before each explanation and so on.

We have also analysed text to model good writing, using the highlighting system mentioned earlier. We also analyse student texts using these highlighting conventions.  This is an important way for student to clearly see what is missing from their response.

My biggest hurdle in implementing this with staff and in the classroom is the fear of going from learning and responding about what is known (the content) and moving to learning and responding about what is thought or felt (the concept).  This has created anxiety for both teachers and students at its introduction.  But I can attest that it is worth persevering through this because it leads to less fear and anxiety on the other side.  And better results, and more engage students, and more confident student and empowered staff and …

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