What is ALARM and why should you use it?

I currently get between 3 to 5 people per day visiting my blog via the search term ALARM. I have only posted once about ALARM but I guess there’s not much information out there. To give people some more to go on I’ve decided to do series of posts about A Learning And Responding Matrix.

ALARM was developed by Max Woods at Freshwater High School. You can watch Max explain ALARM by visiting their YouTube Channel.

In my mind ALARM is a number of things:

  • A common language for a school to talk about writing extended responses
  • A method for summarising information
  • A framework for teaching higher order thinking
  • A structure for analysing questions and writing responses
  • A simple method of teaching students to analyse their own writing
  • A simple method of teaching students to anaylse the writing of others
  • A method of breaking down a concept so that the hierarchy of knowledge can be explicitly taught
  • A method for developing a marking rubric
  • A way of exposing hidden content in syllabus documents

ALARM works best if implemented as a whole school initiative but it can also can have an enormous impact if only used by one teacher in one classroom. It does not require you to throw everything out and start again, nor is it the be all and end all.  It is one tool among an arsenal of teaching and learning strategies to be used. I used to say that even when implemented poorly it has a positive impact but I have revised that. If teachers just give their students completed matrices and students are not expected to think for themselves then it is pointless. So don’t do that. Any attempt above teacher as the font of all knowledge will have a positive impact.

ALARM is often sold as a way of getting band 6’s in the HSC and for Freshwater High School, that did happen. For me, this is a wonderful side effect of teaching my students to think critically. It doesn’t just help the top kids. It gives students who struggle access to questions so they can express what they know. My favourite student response was from an at risk year 11 student who suddenly started to engage with the work. When I ask him what changed he said, “I can do this now! I thought I was dumb because I didn’t know how to do this so I didn’t want to try. This I can do.”

Seeing my students making connections between concepts on their own has also been a joy. I no longer have to make connections for them, they do this for themselves. And not just the top students. All students learn how to do this. My goal is to develop critical thinkers who can be critical citizens of the world beyond the HSC.

What I love about ALARM is the simplicity.  Two matrices (logical and connotative) and 9 verbs (Name, Describe, Explain, Analyse, Critically Analyse, Evaluate, Critically evaluate, Conceptualise, Appreciate) is all you need. Now I can hear a few of murmur, “I already use scaffolds and the syllabus verbs.” I was with you on that one when I did my first professional learning day on ALARM.  For most of the morning I kept saying in my head, “I do that.” But I wasn’t explicitly doing the higher order stuff.  I asked my student to think critically but I failed to teach them how. I didn’t know how to teach them this. I was getting them 90% of the way and then expecting them to get the final 10% on their own. This was why I got those disappointing marks in the HSC. (You know the ones, the 89’s.)

This was confronting.  ALARM can be confronting. It challenges what you know. It highlights the holes in your knowledge and skill. Moving from what you know to what you think is a confronting leap for most of us. But if it’s difficult for me as a highly educated professional, imagine what it is like for our students. Anything that helps them do this and gives them the confidence to tell you what they know and what they think in a structured and coherent way has got to worth trying.

In my next post, I will explain the logical interpretative matrix.

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4 thoughts on “What is ALARM and why should you use it?

  1. […] is the 2nd in a series of posts about ALARM. The first was an overview of ALARM and some reasons why you should use […]

  2. […] in a series of posts about ALARM, A Learning and Responding Matrix. The posts so far include: What is ALARM and why should you use it? and ALARM Logical Interpretive […]

  3. […] is the fifth post in a series on using ALARM in the classroom. These include: What is ALARM and why should you use it?, ALARM Logical Interpretive Matrix, ALARM Connotative Interpretive Matrix and Doing what […]

  4. […] is the sixth post in my series on ALARM.  The previous posts include: What is ALARM and why should you use it?, ALARM Logical Interpretive Matrix, ALARM Connotative Interpretive Matrix, Doing what you’ve […]

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