The COETAIL Effect

This is my final blog post for Coetails. If you’d like to follow me from now on, I would like to direct you my blog, Teaching Ahead of the Curve on Blogger. As this is my last post, I’d like to close by sharing some of my reflections on this incredible year and a half long course and some of the things I’ve learned throughout it.

Image courtesy of CC

Image courtesy of CC

Practice using digital tools before using them with students. I’ve seen some extremely powerful lessons taught with no tech tools at all, and I’ve seen some lessons burdened with an overly inundated technology agenda befuddled with teacher inexperience. If you’re not an expert, try to have someone available in the class who is.

You’re not an expert, but you can connect with them. Twitter, Edmodo, and other RSS feeds can give you a conduit to people that are constantly reinventing education. You’re going to be blown away at what others are doing and will be “taken to school” by these people. But, your experience will gradually elevate you to the level of “expert” in the eyes of others and you’ll soon find yourself as a “go-to” person for help who are blown away by your experience and know how. Share what you’ve learned with grace and humility.

The internet may be unreliable, so have a back up. In the last two months, the internet on my side of the building has become notoriously unreliable, limiting digital tools. Because of this, I’ve had to adapt with paper resources for the last quarter of school. However, I was told that some new routers and modems will be installed this summer, making it faster next fall.

Balance technology use with face to face interaction. Blended learning is something that I think helps augment learning in so many ways. Yesterday, one of my classes had great internet and the other two did not. I was using a google presentation and the chat feature for some writing warm ups and found that the class that could use the internet and chat functionality produced much better writing than students that just “shared their learning out loud”. At the same time, I don’t want to have students exclusively on their machines and want them to interact face to face.

Information is increasing exponentially, don’t worry if you can’t keep up. As I’ve talked to people about RSS, Twitter and all the people that they should follow, they thing that they ask is “How can I keep up?” and to them I answer, “You can’t.” What is interesting though is that I meet people who have been using a tool for years that I’ve never heard of and I share one of my “go-to” tools with them that they have never heard of either.

Don’t neglect teaching pedagogy. With phrases like “21st century skills” and digital natives, one might start to think that every and anything should be online. Technology can augment and redefine learning, but it should do so seamlessly. Think of fundamental learning first, and the “how-to” second.

Your experience will elevate and advance you.  When I was in the early stages of my teaching career, I thought such iconic teachers like Lucy Calkins, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Deborah Meier were someone plucked by the hand of god to be spokespersons for teachers around the world. What I learned most from COETAIL, is sharing what you’ve learned will help your notoriety, connect with others, and develop a following.

Image courtesy of CC

Image courtesy of CC

Posted in Musings | Tagged | 3 Comments

Course 5 Project: The Aftermath

It’s been nearly 2 weeks since my students finished engineering distillation apparatuses for science and I’m sorting through issues of grading and assessment. If you didn’t see my course 5 COETAILs project, here it is below:

What Do We Do with Poor Scores?-Assessment Grey Areas

Statistically, 83% was the students’ average grade on the post assessment. Of the students that did poorly, it wasn’t that they didn’t know know how to do a particular task, but merely that they overlooked it and didn’t go back to it before I made an appraisal of their work.  My biggest hero in assessment is Canadian educator Tom Shimmer that wrote a dynamite book entitled “10 Things that Matter from Assessment to Grading”. One of the key points he makes against grade deflation and giving kids a “0” is asking what that grade actually represents. Does it mean that they didn’t know how to do it, or did they and we’re using the lowered grade as punishment? All good educators believe that grades should be accurate as possible so the deflated grade (or low grade on incomplete work) was not something I could support.

What I decided was to copy and paste my comments about their work not only into the bottom of the doc, but using the Doctopus script, email them suggestions and also copy and paste my comments in their gradebook, suggesting changes and areas for improvement. I think a lot of educators don’t tolerate this notion: either the kids deliver or it’s their fault and they’ll be punished; and if they falter, oh well, just learn from it. Working with middle schoolers like I do, I think that I’m responsible for supporting and developing good work habits. 6th graders are 11 years old. They don’t know how to be students yet. Let’s let them and encourage them to show their best work. Wouldn’t we all want the same privilege?

Of all the students that had incomplete work, nearly all of them appreciated the opportunity to resubmit and do their best work before copy and pasting it into their blogs. This is very contentious issue in education and it raises some questions. Notably:

  1. Does project based assessment lead to grade inflation? 
  2. How can we accurately assess student learning?

I think most parents and teachers (especially in the MS and ES divisions) prefer a sort of “Goldilocks” structure of assessment: Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right. I’ve seen colleagues of mine come and go and a couple notables who had a very academically rigorous method of assessment. No retakes. No resubmissions. Although I understand their devotion to having students do their best work and not a half-assed job, must we not also provide opportunities for self-betterment? Shouldn’t we provide assessment practices that foster second chances and making use of meaningful feedback? I think I owe my 11 year old students that privilege. High school and college assessments practices will eventually come.

I think my open-ended responses were a good fit for the expected learning outcomes as envisioned by blooms taxonomy below. Formative assessment early on helped me “check off” some of the “lower level” content and skills standards.


Blooms Taxonomy: Image Courtesy of CC


How Did Students Feel About the Experience?

My classroom blog is primarily a posting site for parents where I put student work or my own hum-drummings. But in this case, I posted the video above and thought it would be a good venue for the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Evaluation. This is something that traditional, standardised testing struggles to answer, but are the questions we want our future leaders to answer. They had their choice between four options as a writing warm up last week and here are some of my favorite responses:

Do you think your device worked well enough to be considered for mass scale production? (Give examples)

“I think my device worked TERRIBLY and will never be a mass scale production unless we change it greatly. We collected less than 5% of the water we had in the first place! It was cheap, but that wasn’t the main purpose, distilling and collecting it was. We had a bulky apparatus that broke easily and had A LOT of leaks because SOMEONE cut a hole and the whole thing fell down!! (not to mention any names). THE HORROR!!”

Do you think it’s easier to purify water, or to keep it clean? Why?

“I think it is better if we just keep the water clean in the first time because when we purify water it costs a lot of money to buy the device that help purify water. It is also better to keep the water clean because water is very important to us then why pollute it, and we are not completely sure if it is safe enough to drink like normal clean water.”

How can countries grow and prosper without degrading the environment? 

“I think it would be hard as a country to grow and prosper, without damaging the earth. I suppose I would suggest not not having lots and lots of factories, and earning money with other things. Also, having lots of parks and trees and wildlife in a country would help, and that might earn tourists, which would make the country more prosperous.”

How has this project made you think about water and our resources? 

“The project made me think about how limited our resources are and we should “protect” these resources. Earth is very fragile, if we don’t take care of it, it would soon broke apart and everything living on earth would die. I would hate myself if earth fell apart because of me. 97% of the water is sea water(which need to be purified to be drinkable), 3% is clean water(drinkable&undrinkable tap water). Less than 1% from the clean water is drinkable water and the reset is either ice or tap water. I felt a bit angry about how people treated earth while earth gave us a home.”


Final Thoughts

When I read the response above and on the students blogs, I was overcome by one of the most elated feelings that I’ve had as a teacher in my career. Rather than checking off content standards, I was in awe of the deepness and insight that students shared with regards to the law of conservation of matter, the water cycle, chemistry and global poverty. Although our job is to teach, the most important unwritten learning outcome is that we teach students to care. With an uncertain future, I’m filled with a sense of hope by hearing such voices, passions and resolve.

Posted in Blogging, Musings | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

How Technology Has Changed My Science Classroom


What were your goals for this lesson/project (Standards)?

As teaching often requires delivering and assessing a grocery list of standards, I used formative assessment tools to measure entry level background knowledge and skills and provide coverage for all the standards I teach in the unit “Intro to Chemistry”. However, our school is taking steps to identify “power standards” which are 3-5 key standards that teaching teams agree on having higher order application at the end of the learning process. My power standards were:

  • Accurately collect data through the selection and use of tools and techniques appropriate to the investigation. Construct tables, diagrams and graphs, showing relationships between two variables, to display and facilitate analysis of data. Compare and question results with and from other students.
  • Communicate scientific procedures, data, and explanations to enable the replication of results. Use computer technology to assist in communicating these results. Critical review is important in the analysis of these results. Level: Important
  • Use mathematics, reading, writing, and technology in conducting scientific inquiries. Level: Important
  • The total mass of the mixture is equal to the sum of the masses of the components. Total mass is conserved when different substances are mixed. Level: Important
  • All matter consists of particles too small to be seen with the naked eye. The arrangement, motion, and interaction of these particles determine the three states of matter (solid, liquid, and gas). Particles in all three states are in constant motion. In the solid state, tightly packed particles have a limited range of motion. In the liquid state, particles are loosely packed and move past each other. In the gaseous state, particles are free to move. Level: Essential

Having power standards meant more flexibility on how I would use a summative assessment for authentic purposes and not force me to use a traditional test. Although some teachers argue that we must give standardized tests to get kids ready for the rigors of high school and colleges, I think they are usually pretty dry and boring. That being said, they are useful, but as a formative assessment piece. In the case of entry and exit interview, the results don’t really count towards a final grades as they are assessments for learning.


What tools did you use? Why did you choose this/these tools for this/these task(s)?
This question will give a dizzying array of actors so I’ll break them down for sake of understanding.
Formative Assessment Tools
  1. Infuse Learning-Great on computers or mobile devices for entry and exit interviews. What I like best about infuse learning is that it streams responses in real time and you know whether or not a student has started.
  2. Google Forms-I used these for quizzes about every two weeks. The questions were a bit higher up on blooms taxonomy scale and the responses allowed me to do a number of functions with them afterwards.
  3. FlubarooFlubaroo is a script that is compatible with Google form spreadsheet responses that allows quick grading of multiple choice, choose from a list and checkbox responses.
  4. Doctopus-I like doctopus for file sharing and the easy of going back and forth between student work. It also allows me flexibility for grading and assessment.
  5. AutocratAutocrat has allowed me to create personalised documents following assessments after having used Google forms. For instance, a form will reduce a students responses through flubaroo to a 6 out of 10. But with autocrat, a document can me made and emailed to the student with correct responses, and their responses for reference.
Publishing and Peer Review
  1. Snapguide-We used this app on the ipad to document and communicate procedures of how this apparatus was made. I have never used snapguide before, but the result was a very sleek product.
  2. Screencastify– This free chrome app extension made it easy to record screen casts which I incorporated into the movie later.
  3. Google Docs-Google Docs is invaluable and the sharing options make it great to check in with student progress. As the higher order thinking was structured around command terms such as “Analyze” “Prove” “Interpret” and “Apply Concepts”, open ended responses were the best way for students to show their learning of these concepts.
  4. Google Spreadsheets-Like Docs above, I like the collaborative nature of sharing and spreadsheets. I actually use spreadsheets more than docs in the science classroom as we are constantly doing data collection and analysis.
  5. WordPress-Wordpress is our blogging platform and hence publishing tool. After students had finished on their Google Doc, they can publish their work for some of our partner classrooms around the world and elicit feedback. 
  6. Skype-I’ve had a few experts talk to my class this year, but I am lucky to know the head of a major water treatment plant as he was the father of one of my students years ago. This is where it pays to get to know your parents and the knowledge that they can share with your class is so awesome.
  7. I Movie-What I used to make the finished product. It was hard getting the time down to 11 minutes.


How did the students react? Include actual samples of student reflection (video, images, etc)

What I enjoy most about teaching is that it’s such a multi-faceted profession. We’re not only teachers, but we’re statisticians, counselors, mediators, actors, performers and scientists. I closely follow the debates about education reform and think a lot about the future of education with assessment models that are being imposed on schools. 

I love that students struggled to share ideas and hone their communication skills. I tried to capture this “struggle” in some of the movie clips above, but I think overall, the students were very engaged and had a lot of fun.


Evidence of learning? Remember to include student evidence like video, images, reflections.

The summative piece was on a google doc that I used with a scoring rubric. I’ll put a link to a student example here as well. The grade 6 math teacher (Zachary Post) and I collaborated to include samples of graphing and analysis which is a current theme in grade 6 math, so we thought it was a great opportunity for integration. The formative pieces were more frequent and assessment tools such as forms and infuse learning made assessment quick and easy. 

A Word on Standardised Assessments

The irony of teaching is that we should differentiate our teaching and standardise our assessments. I think one cannot standardize things such as collaboration, creativity, and personal qualities such as self reflection and learning from failure. Many companies are increasingly wanting such skills from their new hires, but standardized testing does little to engender these. I think that standardized testing does have a place, but I relegate it to formative assessments and ensuring that students have the necessary skills and knowledge for later application. After all, if we’re going to ask that they learn something, shouldn’t we teach them why they should be learning this?

Outcome? Did you meet your goals?

Looking at the spreadsheet and responses of the students, about 90% of the students had excellent support within their final reflection. There were a few students who didn’t, but this was due to quickly glossing over the questions and not giving them ample support. As a middle school teacher, I try not to be too much of a hard liner on grading and gave some of the students that struggled in the final reflection to turn in their best work. After all, isn’t our job to teach children, regardless of how long it takes them to learn?

What would you do differently next time? What did you learn?

The use of snapguide was a godsend, but my timing of it could have been a bit better. For instance one designated “tech ninja” documented the procedure early on, but over multiple trials, groups amended their design and altered it slightly which was different than the documented procedure during the initial construction. The reason I did this was to free up the group for data analysis and graphing later, but as I saw the designs change, I knew their original construction procedure was obsolete

On the making of this movie, I learned that I had a lot to learn in the way of movie editing; especially sound equalization. On some of the interviews in the hallways, some of the background noise (white noise) was odd and I struggled with the audio editing. This was my 6th movie I made on I Movie and need to get better at audio enhancements.

How do/did you plan to share this with your colleagues?

I’ve shared this on Twitter, Edmodo and Google +. I’ve got a lot of positive responses. I think this video will be my signature video on my youtube page and if/when the days comes that we do some job recruiting, I think this gives a great snapshot into what learning looks like in my classroom.

What was your greatest learning from COETAIL?

I think that technology is seen as an obstacle for many people and that new trends can inundate educators to feel like they are behind the times, so why learn? What I learned most is that quickly learning new skills can be a huge benefit to classroom instruction, especially data collection and analysis. Freeing up time to assess such lower level tasks has given me more time to read about student learning that does matter. The funny thing is, despite all that I’ve learned, all these new skills have grounded me in keeping with fundamental practice of good teaching pedagogy but select tools that redefine learning in ways that are seamless. Such tools like Skype, Apple Products, Google Apps and WordPress have brought my students interests and voice to the world. Although they are only sixth graders, I think they have a role in shaping their view of the world and empower them to think like scientists. By giving them real challenges to solve, we inspire them to think that they can be one.


Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s Your Reader?

The other night someone asked what do we use to curate and consume media online in order to become better at our practice. For fun, I’d share mine along with frequency and use.

 What: Flipboard App for the Ipad

How: Curates information from twitter, news, flipboard pics, news.

When: At home on the couch or perhaps in bed falling asleep, usually on a daily basis. Great for lazy wake-ups on Sunday morning.

Why: Flipboard is my aggregated newspaper. I typically don’t interact with the articles other than to re tweet on twitter. When I want to chill out and learn about the world while relaxing, Flipboard is my ‘go-to’.



What: Tweetdeck Chrome Extension

How: Pulls tweets from people I’m following and also through hashtags that are interesting to me. I like #eduwin and #steallikeanartist at the moment.

When: I check tweetdeck two to three times a week, but tweet articles from flipboard or other sources to twitter once or twice a day. Tweetdeck is well organized and I like the columns to organize new posts and interactions with online friends.

Why: It’s a personalized community and you easily meet strangers.



What: Google + Communities

How: Directs RSS feeds and posts from blogger and other sources to a “facebook type” of interface where people are sharing blog posts and other items of interest.

When: I check into Google + almost daily. It’s my facebook but for professional use.

Why: I think that Google + has the most helpful community of educators. I’ve asked for help on Twitter a number of times but don’t generally get a response. Google + has helped me get in contact with others that have helped me troubleshoot technical issues with Google Apps.



What: Facebook

How: Posts from friends or status updates of humdrum happenings!

When: I went from using facebook daily to checking in roughly 1-3 times per month.

Why: Facebook has been the best for getting in touch with people from the old days. It’s older than Google +, and more people are using it. I restrict my use of facebook to strictly personal and socializing purposes and never do “shop talk”. If we go on a trip and friends want to see what we did, Facebook is where I create an album.



What: Feedly Chrome Extension

How: Sends RSS feeds to an aggregated place.

When: I read Feedly during the 20 minutes in the middle of the school day when we “drop everything and read”.

Why: I’ve only started using Feedly this fall after Google reader when down in July. (So bummed!) Feedly gives me the feeds from from my favorite educational bloggers.


To readers out there: What is your reader of choice? 


Posted in Blogging | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

In Their Own Way

An interesting article came out of the Huffington post this week indicating that all the free web content, flipped videos, and “google-able” answers will never replace good teaching. The author Chris Liang Vergara admits to be trumpeting Mind Research Institutes math enrichment program which he currently presenting on at SXSW this weekend with fellow developer Matthew Peterson. At first, this just seems like a self promotion with more interactive and “text-less” learning as opposed, to say, Khan academy.  In either case, both engender personal traits of:

  • Persistence
  • Learning through ones mistakes
  • Self-paced learning

Are These the Solution?

Are we not at the holy grail moment of education where such technologies are making the life of a teacher considerable easier? With such programs, why is is that students still turn off of learning and may not be motivated to sit through a youtube tutorial?

Failure is essential for learning. So why do parents and students fear it?

Image Courtesy of CC


Because what these programs do is teach essential skills and knowledge, but don’t well enough engage students in the question “Why must I learn this?” and what relevance does their learning have to benefit their local communities? I think in this regard, all the well intentioned flipped learning advocates, and self paced app developers fall short.  One of the more inspirational videos I read this week was about the power of “Design Thinking” which came out of Edutopia this week which shows a group of students redesigning their local environment. After one sees this, it becomes immediately noticeable where skills and knowledge play a part and how teachers can use these as teachable moments, essential to the project.

It’s these skills which we would all agree make a well-educated individual. More and more articles are coming out advertising what employers are really looking for in their workforce. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not passing standardised tests (if you can believe that), but the ability to work cooperatively, solve problems, learn and apply new skills on the job that is nouveau.
Measuring What Matters

To people that try to compartmentalise learning as a checklist of bulleted facts and skills that can be checked off with a standardised test, they’ll never see this bigger picture. What education reformers often fail to understand is the difference between giving students the skills to be a scientist and inspiring them to be one. I’m not saying that assessment doesn’t have a role (actually, I would argue that is has a big one with assessing for understanding) but the application of skills is what is difficult to measure, so it’s not.

“What education reformers often fail to understand is the difference between giving students the skills to be a scientist and inspiring them to be one”

Are such skills an indicator of future success anyways? Thomas Friedman reported yesterday that even Google is shying away from hiring college graduates and has roughly 14% of it’s staff on some of it’s teams without college degrees. G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” said Laszlo Bock, senior vice president for people operations at Google. If you want further proof, ask yourself how the United States has been the global economic superpower for the last half century and producing mediocre educational testing results. 
Designing a Distillation Apparatus to Create Potable Water

In about two weeks, my students will complete their projects; distillation apparatuses that purify water which is a UN millennium development goal. I told my students on the first day of class that this would be our focus and they’ll upload their instructions of how to build one and their data results to the internet for free. The result has been dynamite. Lessons are based on teaching skills and knowledge essential for the project and relevance has seamlessly tied into lessons. This has give the students the ability to be creative, struggle, compromise, apply and learn humility. The use of educational technology has also played three key roles:

  1. Modifying Data Collection. Our school is making strides to get teachers more involved in using formative assessment rather than assessing merely at the end of a unit. Formative assessment may seem like a huge time consuming task, but using such feedback turns failure into information, and electronic tools allows teachers (and students) to see their progress in real time which improves cognitive abilities through brain-based research. Such scripts like autocrat allow for generating personalized feedback after assessments on google forms.
  2. Documenting Process. Engineering a device is a rather cumbersome process, and one that is best augmented with the use of visuals; either pictures of video. In this capacity, the Ipads have been great because such apps allow for a sleek presentation of how to do any procedure. Some of my kids used “Explain Everything” although most of them used a new app called “Snapguide” which was a first for me, but a nice product.
  3. Publishing Their Results for Peer Review. I’ve been a big advocate of blogs for student portfolios and I’ve been connecting with other teachers around the world and their classes that do the same. Now, more than ever, students can share their work with a greater audience and invite others to comment and critique their research which is now possible.
Peer review motivates students to do better work and write for an actual audience
Image courtesy of CC

I’ll finish with a quote from Jay McTighe who once said at a workshop, “What does it mean to really understand something?” All teachers have scratched their heads at one time or another when a student has seemed to “demonstrate” something to turn around and show no application of it later. What led to this disparity? Simple forgetfulness? Poor pedagogy? It up to us to keep at it, teach what’s important and allow for students to show this, all in their own way.

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Imagining What’s Possible

I told my sixth graders on the first day back after the holiday, that our chemistry unit would focus on one problem- how to create potable water. I showed them some videos attesting to this real-world problem and also how this is a UN millenium development goal as well. We browsed some solutions online such as the “life straw” which is good, but not affordable to those who most need it. There are not many videos online that instruct people how to create a distillation apparatus but most involve expensive chemistry equipment.

I want education to be meaningful. I want what the students learn to connect to possible solutions to real issues that we face. Am I too optimistic in thinking that middle schoolers might actually pose ideas in the hopes of inspiring them later? Perhaps. But most of the research that I’ve read on student engagement, say that it starts with purposeful tasks that are relevant. Although my students are engineering a device, the integration of technology has got me thinking.

Image courtesy of CC

This is my favorite version of the SAMR model because it outlines what the different levels of how technology can reinvent learning. Take the example of Alex Gunther who used minecraft to build virtual worlds to re-enact renaissance scenes for social studies; a task which was definitely inconceivable. Or Sean Thompson who, as an ICT director has helped others modify tasks such as creating content for accessibility or augmenting pedagogy with the flipped classroom model. SAMR has many different levels and I think that familiarising ones self with them leads to a better understanding of where technology might help instruction. If I had to summarize my one minute elevator pitch about this project, it would be this:

“How can we engineer a low-cost distillation apparatus that can purify water for those who most need it?”

After building these, we want to be able to do convey the procedure which is difficult to do without visual aids. The tech I play to be using for this is an app (Snapguide) that will transform our scientific procedure of being able to teach others how to replicate our results through subtitled slides and videos. Here are my standards:

A. Advances in technology can expand the body of scientific knowledge. Technological tools allow people to observe objects and phenomena that otherwise would not be possible. Technology enhances the quality, accuracy, speed and analysis of data gathered.
Level: Important

Communicate scientific procedures, data, and explanations to enable the replication of results. Use computer technology to assist in communicating these results. Critical review is important in the analysis of these results.
Level: Important

To be able to convey procedures using video intermeshed with written descriptions is, I think “modification” because video has been around for decades and subtitles are nothing new. 

I’ll finish with the above video as being an inspiration to all educators. For starters, it’s close to home as it takes place in the Twin Cities where I grew up, but it also shows how spaces have been designed to allow for collaborative spaces and also spaces where individuals just need to work without any distractions. Being able to paint and decorate the environment makes it more personalised as well. The downside, is that it’s obviously not cheap. Although the costs weren’t disclosed, the lines of IMacs and suggest that this may not be a possibility for schools in low tax-generating districts. Seeing Randall Fielding dance with his students at one of their music productions is one of those “moments” that all teachers hope for, and so few find.

Still, I think by imagining such spaces with such real-world tasks, we can start to reimagine what is possible within our students, their learning products and how we teach.

Posted in Musings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How Will Education Change Because of Technology?

The newest batch of PISA test scores is out. Alarmists are decrying that the sky is falling and the US is “losing it’s competitive edge”. Diana Ravitch paints a more optimistic picture saying that US test scores have been stagnant for decades and still the US has reigned as the global economic superpower for the last half century, surpasses the world in patent applications and, for the record, higher test scores don’t correlate to higher economic output, democratic institutions or a better quality of life. So why chase these test scores as the ultimate indicator of success? When will reformers eventually accept that curricular changes cannot solve problems of poverty and income inequality or level the playing field with cultures that embrace “dragon parenting”, cram schools and learning academies? How can US parents “compete” with such demographics when most US parents want their children simply to play and enjoy childhood?

Image Courtesy of CC

As interested parties grapple with this dilemma, I think technology is subtly rewriting the rules of “learning” behind the scenes in a way that making learning more accessible and equitable. I was very interested in the Horizon report’s near and long term horizon of how technology will change our profession and we’re seeing these start to happen.


Student Choice will Reduce Dropout Rates

Joshua Davis writes about how even the poorest of children can be incentivized to learn by choosing topics of interest to them. With tired curriculums that must be “slogged through” an element of student choice can be vital for retention. Some teachers pilot this with ‘20% Time‘ which means every fifth lesson providing time for students to learn about a topic of interest.
Free, Open Content will Make Textbooks Obsolete

Publishers can’t be happy about this. But really, when you’re charging upwards of 100$ a textbook to meet a mandated state curriculum, it’s only a matter of time before teachers start accessing the treasure trove of readings and videos online. Also, textbooks are usually a pre-packaged, teacher proof curriculum, with tired questions at the end which are sanitized to prevent any real discussion of topics that matter. Are not readings from different sources and videos made from different people a kaleidoscope of perspectives that remind us all of what it’s like to be connected in this world?
Analytical Tools Will Create Personalized Curriculums

We’ve all used grade books, but whole programs like Khan Academy which combine content and asessement practices from beginning to mastery will help teachers tailor instruction to specific students instead of teaching to the middle. Such tools will help support learning outside of class and help devote more class time to inquiry based activities and learning with an end-goal in mind.
MOOC’s Will Make Learning Accessible to All

Massive, open, online courses or (MOOCs) are only a few years old and the concept of offering college level courses to anyone with an internet connection has set off a chain reaction of universities moving their content for the world to not only see, but learn. The most notable are Coursera, edX, and Udacity. I think the most promising feature of these are that people don’t need to be born into privilege to get a good education. The real hurdles to these are recognizing participation in MOOC’s (and participation can waiver from many levels to dropping out) by a credential or certificate which holds the same stock as an actual university transcript.

The number of courses that are being offered are really the inspiration. After digging around on Coursera, I found a course on Next Generation Science standards, which our school is leaning towards adopting within two years. I signed up for it and the curriculum coordinator and many other science teachers at the school have done the same and will use this course as a PD discussion circle this spring. Here is a list of 75 classes for teachers and students.
Cheaper Hardware Will Force Teachers to Adapt

Technology prices are dropping, which means they will become more prominent. However, some teachers are resistance to change, being entrenched in decades of stagnation and passing fads in education. Is technology really another one or is it here to stay? California highlights the problems of not only procuring hardware, but teaching teachers (and whole districts) how to use it effectively. Just last fall, California embarrassingly recalled thousands of Ipads because students had allegedly “hacked” the devices so they could access all their social media sites. What the students actually did, was reinstall the machines original default settings, hence erasing all the fail safe locks on sites like Facebook. Hacking? I think not.
Learning Communities Will Deliver PD Constantly

Before, we all had to attend our yearly conference to be reinvigorated with new teaching pedagogy, tech tools or content knowledge. Now, with a steady stream of teachers who are blogging, tweeting, and with the rise of educational conferences around the world, good teaching is increasingly becoming easy to access. Through chats, skype, and forums such as Edmodo, teachers can talk to others to share ideas, resources and learn about topics that their school is unable (or unwilling) to provide. Want to get more experience with PYP? Take a MOOC on it! Can’t afford to go to the 21st century conference in Hong Kong in December? Follow #2lclhk on Twitter!On a personal level, this last one has made me grow so much as a teacher, especially over the last four years. 

Image Courtesy of CC

As the education debate rages and initiatives like “race to the top” and “no child left behind” continue to flat line, we must ask ourselves, are these the indicators that matter? In the meantime, we can provide interesting content and learning to our students, our children, and take advantage of the great resources that we as the world, are creating.


Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Gamification: Problem Based Learning Repackaged?

On the first day of our unit on electricity three weeks ago, Lori and I told the students the following prompt:

“You and your group members are on a mission to Mars. Your job is to build a remote controlled rover to perform a task like collect soil from the planet, deliver a payload to a colony of explorers, or do a search and rescue. Our learning of electricity and your understanding of it will be vital to learning how to accomplish this task.”


And so it began. Not only a project based, but a problem based approach to learning with the end goal in mind from day 1. My partner and I used this backwards design approach and developed a short unit on electricity with an engineering component and tech tools for designing (Google Drawings) and formative assessments after lessons (Google Forms for quizzes and Infuse Learning for post lesson evaluation) Lori Uemura, being the flipped classrooom guru of our school was kind enough to make and record presentations with video lectures for our students which we both used to “front load” learning before the students came into class. When they did, they didn’t practice lighting up light bulbs on chintzy circuit boards, they made a circuit that was vital to their project and powered one of their electric motors.

Presenting circuits for peer review

I came in with a different angle. I gathered the materials and developed a project rubric and was in charge of assessments.Working together, Lori and I were able to cut the work load in half and make better quality presentations and better quality assessments. Our standards were pretty loose and didn’t specify all of the electrical components that we needed to use, so we thought we should just focus on the basic parts that would be useful for this given task. As this was our first time teaching this unit, we would reflect afterward on changes for next year.

Soldering components

Soldering components

Gamification Enters

Once students had the content and skills, they were able to synthesize what they learned and apply it to this creative endeavor. Our technology assessments allowed us to intervene and help groups that were struggling to stay on task and the authenticity of the problem made it more compelling to the students. I was inspired by Sal Khan’s use of data and Paul Anderson’s approach to playing and being creative for real learning. Although I supplied all of the electrical components, tape and balsa wood for the frame, students still needed to supply their own wheels. Students peppered me with questions such as “What should I use as wheels?” to which I inquired: “What material do you want your wheels to be made out of?” and “What’s your ideal diameter considering the diameter of the motor?”

Putting on Wheels

Suddenly, math becomes relevant. Students start connecting the perimeter of the frame with an increase to wheelbase and the fact that a larger frame may not be the best. They dispute whether metal or plastic wheels would be better and wrestle with the best way to attach them to the metal axles. How is this all gamification might you ask? I believe it meets meets many of requirements that advocates of gamification argue are essential for real world learning. The first is persistence. Students learn by trial and error how a circuit works and trouble shoot their wiring and circuitry. There was also a progress report as indicated by rubrics which could have been “badges”. Finally, each student has a unique skill set such as technical skills, leadership or steady hands. James Paul Gee and Jane McGonigal discuss how such tasks are springboards for adult learning communities where skill sets are developed, marketed and sold.


What We Learned

My teaching partner and I learned so much through this project, and as groups settle into the last stage of their project, I think of the following things and how we can improve upon them next year:

  1. It helps to have volunteers. We didn’t anticipate the number of problems that groups would have and despite ample demonstrations (and perhaps deliberately leaving some things vague) we were often barraged for help. Mr. Hunt and Mr. Minh were a big help every day along the way.
  2. Persistence grows when the end is in sight. I noticed that some groups were close to desperation early on but once they got started and invested their time and effort into the project, re-motivating them was something we had to do less and less.
  3. Struggle is essential to learning. So often did I get asked a question to which would ask the group a redirecting question to really get them thinking about the task. This frustrated many groups, hoping I would simply give them “the answer” or show them “how to do it”. To quote Fredrick Douglass: “Without struggle, there is no progress”.
  4. Young adults don’t approach a task the same as educated adults. When our students started, some groups did a better job of collectively sharing opinions and ideas. Some just had an alpha student that charged ahead with directions. It was important to coach the students through the group working process to ensure that all members were involved.
Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Managing Digital Technology in the Classroom

I’ve just been learning about some awesome tips on how to manage technology in the classroom. The first comes from a wiki on classroom management of laptops created by educators that offer a number of good tips on refocusing student attention. These are my favorites:

  1. Telling students to put screens at “half mast”. This means putting the screen down, but not closing it completely hence shutting down the computer. I’ve always used the prompt: “Put your screens at 20 degrees” which means putting the screen down at an angle for which the screen can’t be seen and thus distract students. With Ipads, to get the kids to turn over their devices, simply say “Apples up!”
  2. Consider internet logging software. This is a deterrent to students that may be using technology inappropriately. With students that are collaborating together, there may be a tendency to delete other students work. With my experience with Google apps and the tool: “revision history” I know who deleted what and can model good digital etiquette in a way that screen recording devices cannot keep up with.
  3. There is a range of digital competencies. We think of all students as digital natives, but I find on one end of the spectrum, I have kids that routinely lose and forget to log their username and passwords constantly. On the other end, I have kids that become more adept at tools than me within minutes. Allow and recognize the latter to be mentors for the former.

Another interesting read is the horizon report and a common thread within the article is that “ongoing professional development for teachers” and “resistance to change reflects the status quo” as a challenge for teachers in learning new technology tools. With all the recommendations about how these tools can innovate learning, one wonders how a teaching staff learns how to reinvent itself. Completely, or piecemeal?

Image courtesy of CC

Image courtesy of CC

At our school, we have shared and developed this in a variety of ways. For starters,we have technology resource facilitators that meet with a select group of teachers monthly, who then share tools with the grade level teams. We also have “Ipad Fridays” where a new ipad app is shared in the morning before classes to any interested people. We also have “teachers teaching teachers” which is a inter-school PD forum in the spring and also various conferences in the region. Finally, our literacy coach asks interested staff to share a three minute mini-lesson at the beginning of staff meetings on Wednesday afternoons. Over time, the fruits of these conversations achieve critical mass as one person shares their work with two teachers, those two share with four, and so on.


Room For Improvement

The most interesting reads come from Jeff Utecht who makes a good rationale for having Ipads as an ES tool and having this transition into laptops in the older years, but also providing Ipad access. With a 1:1 program for laptops AND Ipads, I think something has got to give. I think that the user interface with the traditional keyboard is great for typing, and therefore more desirable. But Ipads can also play a part within a roving cart that can be rolled into any classroom when needed.

Image courtesy of CC

Image courtesy of CC

The most interesting argument Utecht makes is that I pads may not reinvent learning in ways that people actually think they do. Using the SAMR model, one must look at the learning products created and ask, are these products the result of modification and redefinition or just an expensive way of doing the old “way” only sleeker looking?

If it is a “substituted” use for example, reading a PDF on an I pad rather than a textbook, does an I pad’s price tag justify the means? I think not. However, being able to highlight passages and save them to Diigo or share them with other learning communities in a way that augments the traditional way of how texts have been consumed and that’s where staff training comes in.


When we make decisions about whether to use ipads, laptops or a hybrid model of both, these are some of the questions we must ask.




Posted in 2.0 Tools | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Technology Integration in Project Based Learning

I just had a weekend TEDx video binge. Does anyone else have these? You start watching TED talks and just can’t stop.

It started with  Will Richardson talking about how education has become hijacked by corporate reformers and elected officials who are politicizing teachers as inept who must be controlled with ear buds and note cards to standardize instruction. These people can’t seem to understand the difference between test prep and actual “learning”. Following this, I saw Andrew McAfee who highlights the disparity between blue and white collar workers in recent decades and how technical skills will give them an edge or leave others behind to flounder. Finally, I saw “Math Munch” which has been developed by some young eager beavers on how math is all around but it not taught and learned in a creative, playful fashion.

A common thread in all the videos is that our current dogma of educational measurement is notoriously antiquated. Assessments are shortly forgotten and learning cannot be applied laterally. We see this all around, yet, we wait for superman, hoping a solution will save us. What I see is that what is being done on a large scale is notoriously unpopular, meaningless and generally a bore.

“In America, no child should be left behind. Every child should be educated to his or her own full potential.” President George W. Bush

The irony of the statement above is that our 43rd president was a below average student and still advocated that students “must take the test, because we need to see what they have learned”.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Enter Project Based Learning

I tend to favor a project-based learning approach because it starts with an authentic task and it keeps students on task, and makes students see the connections between what they are learning and why they are learning it. However, “doing a project” at the end of a unit is not the same as “project based learning”. Project based learning requires a dizzying understanding of the curriculum and the end product, typically used in a backwards design or UBD format. Good essential questions to “hook” the students are vital and the teacher must be an extraordinary planner who has a long term vision and timeline.

In the beauty of this approach is also it’s limitation. To a teacher that plans “lesson to lesson” and only waits till the end of a unit to decide what to do at the end, having scaffolded lessons may seem like a real burden. Also, the project based approach may allow for more or less depth of the curriculum which a corporate reformer may not favor. “Why do these students learn more and these students learn less?” I imagine them saying.

That’s the beauty of it. Formative assessments serve a little “check-ins” for the skills that students need to do the project. Teachers help them through the design process and use learning experiences to learn the content but the product focuses it in meaningful ways.


Technology Integration in PBL

Although every project is different, technology integration has definitely played a role for me in our recent unit in grade 7 science. For instance in our electricity unit, the students are building their own “Mars Rover” out of basic electrical components. The project has a greater aim which is using engineering know how to design and build a tool that can collect information of the surface of an alien world. Mimicking the NASA rover, this project involves:

Students work out a basic series motor series complete with two motors, cell and switch.

Students work out a basic series motor series complete with two motors, cell and switch.


  • Building basic circuits
  • Understanding the difference between a parallel and series circuit
  • Wiring circuits to allow for alternating current and locomotion in two different directions

Drawing circuits has been a common formative assessment so far in this unit. For instance, when the students were shown some basic circuitry symbols, I wanted to know if they could conceptually

A parallel circuit modeled in Google Drawing

A parallel circuit modeled in Google Drawing

diagram how their circuit is working. Afterwards, being able to keep a working diagram but hypothesize how their switch would reverse the current flow later on. A Google drawing became invaluable, because it gave students the opportunity to “test” their conceptual theory of circuitry before wasting valuable time building and wiring it over and over until it did what they wanted it to do. Furthermore, they were able to collaborate and pool their knowledge about how effective that their design was an whether they really understood electric current. This is very demonstrative of constructivist learning principles.

Being able to present and test their theory not only helped groups ask questions of their own, but showed other groups some possibilities of how their circuits could be wired. As a informal formative assessment, it was dynamite and made extension assignments on parallel verses series circuits relevant and applicable to solving their problem.

For formative assessment, technology has played a part with easy data collection and easy collating. I have been using Google forms as an a quiz maker and with its app “flubaroo” from the script gallery, grading quizzes is a snap. I also have been liking “infuse learning” which is great for entry or exit interview. Below is a question from an exit interview on how well students understand parallel circuits:

Students test their understanding of parallel circuits with "infuse learning".

Students test their understanding of parallel circuits with “infuse learning”.

There you have it. Technology plays a part in modelling, assessment and I have some ideas of how they could showcase their bots final data collection. Stay posted!

Posted in 2.0 Tools, Blogging, Uncategorized | Leave a comment