Category Archives: Thoughts

Thoughts, reflections, personal musings and more.

I Hate Grades

I recently gave a 2-minute nano presentation at 21st Century Learning’s Hong Kong TeachMeet, entitled I Hate Grades. It was a pleasure to be able to speak openly about something very close to my heart, and the reception from the assembled teachers was really positive. Unfortunately the event was not recorded, and one of my colleagues commented that he was said to have missed it. So, as the next best thing, I have done a Photo Booth recording of essentially the same content. Whilst it’s hard to be quite as dynamic and engaging in front of a laptop, the video still gets the key points across.

A broader view of my approach to assessment and curriculum, and how it compares to mainstream education is available in my previous post, The Educator’s Delusion.

The Educator’s Delusion

Read even a small amount of economics, and you might start to believe that human beings have things pretty much worked out. At its heart, economics views us as rational beings that make consistent, logical decisions on how to live. Quite in opposition to this, psychology sees humans as considerably less competent. Spend a little time studying cognition, and you will see that examples of fallacious thinking abound. In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli exposes and catalogues 99 varieties of bias, fallacy and general failure in human thinking and decision making. This book offers us what we really need: a chance to introspect honestly, and reassess the way we think of ourselves. Perhaps our self-assigned pedestal is just a little too sizeable?

Ultimately, and this is a side note, I am given to trusting psychologists over economists, E.F Schumacher excepted. The simple reason for this is that economics (at least practiced by governments and corporations) is predicated on the absurd axiom that it is possible and desirable to obtain unlimited growth in a finite environment.

As educators, we work within long-standing traditions of belief, structure and human interaction, most of which we happily take for granted. These frameworks work well enough for younger students, on the surface at least, where there are certain foundations that we wish to build. As kids get older, however, they quickly start to backfire. For most educators, educational doctrine is so deeply rooted that the soil we till is essentially bound, preventing better thinking from penetrating and gaining hold. Even those espousing “21st century learning” generally don’t scratch through the top soil of educational assumption.

Given the right circumstances, which are vanishingly rare in schools, we might start to see through some of the smoke and mirrors, and see the harm that schools are doing. And not just in some extreme variations of industrial schooling (sorry Hong Kong), but in its very makeup. Perhaps we were lucky enough to have worked in other fields before we became educators. Perhaps our principal encouraged us to read Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, opening the door to “heretical” thinking. Perhaps we had one or two amazing teachers, who threw chairs, climbed on tables and shook us out of student complacency. Just maybe we work in a wonderful, small school, filled with amazing people, that is ripe for change. Perhaps, we don’t have to teach to a test, rank students or in other ways steal their dreams and humanity.

I count myself very lucky indeed to be in this exact position, at the rare confluence of a set of circumstances often beyond my control. The result? I have finally, fleetingly seen beyond what might be called The Educator’s Delusion. And I’d like to pin it down whilst I have the chance, because there is a risk I might never have it this fully in my sights again. Presenting at 21CLHK9 this weekend, and engaging in conversations with many other educators, has brought things into rather clear focus.

At its heart, what we share, and what is so dangerous, is a terribly misguided belief that that it is possible, in any meaningful way, to assess real human learning. There. That’s it.

Oh sure, we can write an exam that most people will fail, because it is based on isolated and arcane knowledge that is divorced from most people’s every day lives. And yes, we can carefully structure a curriculum to pump the required knowledge into students. And if we must, we can examine them before what they have learned has leaked away. And then we can check the box…our job is done.

In our wake, however, we leave a destructive scene filled with anxious husks of young humanity, living lives of disembodied learning, preparing for a working world that no longer meaningful exists (and it’s not getting any better). We produce a population of competitive grade seekers, ranked against each other, immersed in themselves and incapable of genuine living. At my worst, this is exactly who I am, a product of the system I now find myself trying not to perpetuate.

Under the guise of rigour the “best” educators follow best practice (what we might call backward design, as per Richards, Jack C., 2013): lay out a range of learning outcomes, plan experiences and content that meet the outcomes, teach through these plans, assess learning, give feedback. And repeat.

At each stage within the cycle, and across cycles, standards are met, boxes are checked and everyone is happy.

If, however, you return to students a few weeks after the final summative assessment of any particular chunk of learning, you’ll discover something deeply unsettling but mostly overlooked. Something we all know, but which we rarely let our minds dwell upon. Our students ultimately remember very little of what we teach them. Sometimes they can’t even recall the topic, let alone the details we carefully, cleverly built in.

And this is what we do, day in, day out, year after year. It is the educator’s delusion, that we can fill an inherently leaky vessel with disembodied information and expect it to be retained and stay fresh.

For me, in my professional practice, I’ve decided to finally call time on this one. The delusion is dead, its grip loosened. I no longer give grades, I don’t insist on a set pattern of learning and I won’t require mastery of a corpus of deadening knowledge. That’s not to say I’ve given up on teaching or learning: in fact I am more excited than ever about both.

What it does mean is that I am finding more interesting, enlivening, deeper, slower and more fun ways for students to learn. It means I am seeking to promote, not dampen, student agency and action. It means I am giving up direct control over learning, and focusing more more on setting the scene. Free Learning has offered the first steps in this, but there is much more to be done.

My question then, for anyone serious about teaching and learning, is this: have you seen through the educator’s delusion?

Credit: bucket image by Jon Pallbo from Wikimedia Commons, under Public Domain

On Razors & The Nature Of Technology

I am not facially hirsute, and so shaving has never been something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. My bathroom cupboard has housed the same Gillette Mach 3 razor for the last 15 years, and with the cartridges being extremely pricey, I’ve long lived with an uncomfortable, blunt shave. As I’ve aged, and have had to start shaving more regularly, I’ve started to question if there is not a better way to do this. Is it possible to get a cheaper, better shave?

Initially, Sweeny Todd in mind, I thought about switching to a cut throat (or straight) razor. Closer cut, lower cost…a lot more focus required. I sat on this idea for a while, before remembering an older friend who used a “safety razor”, which I never fully understood. A little reading confirmed that this kind of razor, known as a double-edged safety razor in full, might do the trick. Dating, so Gizmodo tells me, from the late 19th century, this invention is what made Gillette the leader in shaving. Like most products, it was, in fact, an improvement on a less economical solution invented by Jean-Jacques Perret. In time, Gillette would move on to pioneer the disposable cartridge razor that most men use today, although they do still manufacture and sell traditional double-edged blades.

Sitting on this information for quite some time, I perhaps would never have gotten around to changing an old habit. Fortunately, taking a hint from an off hand comment, my wife gifted me a safety razor shaving kit for Christmas. Although not cheap (in terms of cost and level of quality), the initial outlay for a nice set is, in retrospect, well worth it. Shaving in this style offers a slower, more thoutghtful experience, with a closer shave, at a far lower cost (per blade). If you are not careful, it is possible to rip yourself up, but with a little care and attention to detail (and a YouTube video for good measure), you can produce a great result. In terms of sustainability, something with less plastic that is easier to construct and smaller to ship seems like it should be a win.

But to be honest, I don’t really care too much about the shave per se (amazing though it might be): what really gets me is what this teaches us about the nature of technology, and our relationship to it. As a civilisation, we almost universally believe in the myth of progress: new technology must be better than old. And whilst the cost, for example, of computers, keeps plummeting, alongside gains in quality, this is not the case across all industries and products. In this case, I think we’ve been collectively had: it really does appear here that an older, simpler technology, available at lower cost, offers a better result. And I’m pretty sure, if we are willing to look hard enough at our fancy cars, disposable clothes and ready meals, we might find other areas in like in which the same is true. Perhaps, after all, those hipsters are onto something here…

Image credit: Vintage Gillette Ball End Tech Safety Razor image by Joe Haupt on Wikipedia Commons, under Creative Commons BY-SA

The Key Is Motivation

This post originally appeared as a Teacher Insight at ICHK.

For those of us who received our formal education in the last millennium, we will most likely recall learning that was highly structured and prescribed. Lessons appeared orderly, with everyone moving through the same material at the same pace, regardless of interest, prior experience or ability. The focus was very much on the individual being able to mimic the knowledge, language and skills of the teacher.

As a teacher, it has been my experience that this kind of learning produces fairly predictable results: a reasonable base of knowledge, with consistency between learners, but very little in the way of creativity, passion and excitement.  Such learning, it seems, is easy to deliver and test, but carries little meaning in the real world, and bores most students most of the time.

Over the past six years we have moved our ICT program steadily further and further from the traditions described above. With each iteration of our course we have observed our learners in their work, actively sought their feedback, and reflected on our practice. The result has been a constant renewal of our offerings, with successful learning experiences kept, and the rest discarded and replaced.

At some point during this journey I came, I believe, to see the exact point at which traditional schooling typically falls down: motivation. Put simply, students who are not motivated to learn, or who are motivated by extrinsic factors, such as fear or future earnings, are generally not active, independent learners. They will do enough to push away the negative emotions associated with learning, but may never experience learning simply for the love of becoming a better person, or mastering something previously out of their reach. They develop a brittle, fixed mindset, and are prone to anxiety. They become isolated, focusing on their own development and considering schooling to be an individual pursuit, rather than a team sport.

This “revelation” should not come as a surprise: after all, how could we expect anyone to become great at, and take pleasure from, something they do not enjoy? For good reason we find it hard to imagine the uninspired concert pianist, the bored surgeon or the unwilling pilot. Unfortunately, many of us are so invested, from our own experiences of school, in the idea that school means struggling against adversity, that we may never pause to consider alternatives. Worse still, we might ascribe to struggle some mythical traits such as “building character” or “tough love”, making unhappiness a daily reality for our children.

Today at ICHK, ICT learning looks very different from the status quo described above. In Years 7-9, we now see Secondary students spending 60% of their learning time deciding what to learn, how long to learn it for and who to learn it with. After building a foundation through a series of units that seek to inspire the romantic thinker (Epic Wallpaper, Tools For Learning, Programming 101), students are set loose on a Free Learning journey that helps them to find joy in learning. Instead of grades we offer rich comments, instead of fixed outcomes we focus on learning what we need to succeed in the task at hand, and instead of teacher dependence we seek independence and problem solving.

This alternative vision of education can seem chaotic, unpredictable and messy, but through careful design it is in fact structured, rigorous, meaningful and engaging. Students find new ways to learn, and learn to collaborate around interests, not friendship groups. They go deeper, invest more of themselves and find new interests. They plan ahead, and execute their plans to get where they want to go. They are pushed to not just skim the surface, but to dig deep and succeed where they might not expect to.

This truly is learning, not schooling. This is setting students free to explore a wonderful world of knowledge, with an experienced guide, rather than tethering them to a fixed set of ideas and dooming them to follow a few well worn intellectual tracks.

As with any change, those of us entrenched in the old ways can find such changes alarming, disorienting and confusing. Where the young leap in, the more experienced among us hold back. And yet, undeniably, the world is changing, and the skills of yesterday are not going to cut it in the world of tomorrow. We need a generation of thinkers who love learning, can work together, will embrace uncertainty, and wish to forge new paths.

And what of us, the old guard? Well, it is, as they say, never too late. We can, with care, unschool ourselves. If you are game to try, come and join us for some ICT Free Learning at ICHK.

Dropbox Security Breach

haveibeenpwnedIn the language of black hat hackers (bad hackers), being pwned means having your defenses breached or your data taken. The excellent online service tracks major security breaches around the world, and alerts users if their data has been pwned and released online.

The bad news for many of us, is that in a July 2012 attack, Dropbox had account details for 68 million users stolen from their systems. This haul, which includes email address and passwords has just recently become public, a fact I discovered when alerted me to the presence of my data within the data set. On the plus side, the passwords were hashed and salted, but half were only protected with SHA-1, which is not nearly as strong as the bcrypt protection on the other half: so, many will not be cracked and available in plain text.

At this point, if you use Dropbox, and have been a user since before July 2012, I would suggest you reset your password.

If you used the same password from Dropbox on other sites, I would recommend you change those passwords too. Especially if you have used it for your primary email account, which hackers will target as a way to get to many of your other accounts.

Although this might seem alarming, please don’t panic. These things do happen from time to time, and as long as you respond appropriately, you can keep your data, identity and systems safe.

Remember, having strong, private passwords is all part of being a good digital citizen.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

What Does Technology Integration Look Like?

TransformativeIt was pointed out to me last night (not unfairly, I confess), that whilst I have a clear model in my mind of what great classroom integration of technology looks like, perhaps I have not articulated this clearly to those I work with. In the past my approach has been to drip feed ideas to various people within school, hoping to find fertile ground for certain approaches. In addition, PD sessions have been used to show a variety of uses for technology. In retrospect, such learning moments have been, for a variety of reasons, too dispersed, infrequent and ad hoc to perhaps make a complete picture. This post, then, is an attempt to shed some light on the approach I would like to see taken in integrating technology into the classroom.

Any technological advance provides us potential new ways to approach learning, and educators have a long history of adopting new technologies with the aim of improving what we do. However, most of the integration we see does not fundamentally change education, but rather provides a more complex, expensive way of doing the same old thing. A classic example of this is using a 1:1 laptop program to have students research and type papers, which provides very little of interest that could not be achieved with pen and paper in a library. What we need are integrations that allow students to do new, powerful things, not possible or practical without the technology being added in. This is the heart of the very popular SAMR model, which promotes Redefinition over Substitution (with Augmentation and Modification as a middle ground).

So, what does this empowering, transformative practice look like when implemented in the classroom? Whilst there is no one approach, some of the entries below might give an idea of the range and scope of what is possible. Each idea links to skills and conteps currently taught in many schools, and accepted as being positive, useful things to know and do. As a side note, these ideas are grouped into subjects, not because this is the best way to teach, but because most teachers are subject teachers, and approach their work from that perspective. There is no reason ideas listed in one subject area cannot be applied to other subject areas.

  • English
    • Persuasion & Publishing – ask students to come up with a literary product that they would like to create, produce and sell (for example, a coffee table book on Minecraft). Using graphic editing software (e.g. Acorn, GIMP, Photoshop), put together some mock up pages. Using collaborative writing software (e.g. Google Drive) to write up a blurb, sales pitch and press release. Create a crowdfunding campaign (e.g. Kickstarter) to raise the money necessary to have the book printed, and take this to your community and beyond (using Twitter, Facebook). Create and publish the book. Place the book in your library.
    • Creative, Non-Linear Writing – expand your students’s view of what creative writing can be by using Google Forms to build an open-ended text that can be read in different ways. See Google Forms Choose Your Own Adventure for an example.
    • Rich Writing – use Storify to enable students to create writing with rich multimedia elements, such as Twitter and YouTube embeds. This might be used to create a fictional story, based on real world events.
    • Graphic Representation – take a scene from a story or play, and ask students to represent it with a rich graphic mashup, using graphic editing software (e.g. Acorn, GIMP) and Creative Commons media. This means that students need to decode the text, and then re-encode it into a new format, which promotes questioning and assists with comprehension.
    • Book As Movie Trailer – similar to the graphic representation idea above, ask students to plan, film and produce a cinematic trailer for a movie version of a book.
    • Emoji Story – ask students to write a story using mainly (or only) emoji to express a narrative, and see how different students interpret it. Or, work in reverse and convert an existing text (e.g. Hamlet) into emoji.
  • Mathematics
    • QR Code Maths Hunt – find locations around school where mathematical concepts (angles, shapes, curves, patterns) can be observed, and label these with QR codes that can be scanned by students. Once scanned, the QR codes point students to websites or videos explaining the concept that can be observed, introducing new mathematical concepts in a physical way.
    • Hands On Geometry – use the Scratch programming environment to ask students to draw shapes (e.g. square, pentagon). Ask students to generalise their work into a program that asks users how many sides a shape should have, and then draws the shape. This helps take knowledge of specific shapes, and draws out general knowledge that connects a range shapes.
    • Math Memes – mathematicians are funny people, and the Internet is full of funny maths jokes that can be used to introduce subjects, or sow confusion and debate (example 1, example 2, example 3)
    • Write Your Own Textbook – rather than just following a textbook, have students create amd publish their own, with examples, questions and answers. Lay it out with desktop publishing software (e.g. Scribus, iBooks Author) and share it online.
    • Where In The World – find a picture of somewhere in your county/state/district that is distinct, but unknown to students. Ask them to use Google Maps, and visual clues from the image to triangulate and discover the location of the image. See Where In Hong Kong for an example of this process.
  • Science
    • Wikipedia Discussion – ask students to find a contentious scientific topic (e.g. evolution), and look at its page on Wikipedia. Look at the Talk page associated article to see some of the discussion and debate that goes on behind the scenes in presenting this idea. Some pages are protected? Why? How does scientific knowledge evolve over time?
    • Experiment Curator – create a website using a free online tool (e.g. WordPress, Wix, Weebly) to set up a site where students share and curate information on scientific experiments. This site can cross year groups and classes. Experiments can be organised by complexity, area of science, experimental approach, etc. This forces students to look at experiments from a broader point of view. Share the website online, invite other schools to participate.
    • YouTube Channel – extending on the experiment curation idea above, have students film experiments, adding subtitle instructions, and student dialogue explaining what is happening. Create a YouTube channel of the collected experiments. This encourages students to more deeply understand what they are doing, so that they can explain it back to others.
    • Arduino Electronics – use an Arduino board and sensor kit to take measurements of the environment, and store the data for further analysis. Get to know local weather and climate, and compare it to reading from other sources and other locations.
  • Humanities
    • Global Issues Board Game – choose a global issue (e.g. climate change), and ask students to produce a board game to simulate the issue, allowing others to learn about it through play. Use Creative Commons media and free iconography to produce something polished and legally saleable. Create some sets, and sell them to the community and other schools. Use money raised to fund change via micro finance (see below). As an example of a game made in this way, look at Producers & Consumers.
    • Micro Finance – taking a small amount of money, ask students to use micro finance (e.g. via Kiva) to fund small scale change in developing countries. Use a collaborative spreadsheet (e.g. Google Sheets) to track loans, repayments and the changes facilitated. Discuss whether micro finance is a sustainable, feasible alternative to humanitarian aid.
    • Wikipedia Editing – find a Wikipedia entry on a relevant topic (e.g. erosion), read it, and see if there are any ways it can be improved or contributed to (e.g. fixing errors, improving text, adding sources, taking and uploading images).
    • Current Affairs Feed – use a feed aggregator or automated online news paper (e.g. Paperli) to create a school feed detailing current affairs and interest news. Share it with students and staff for use across school.
    • Local-Global Sharing – using Twitter or the web, find another classroom, somewhere else in the world, that you can connect to. Have students on both sides prepare ideas and information to share about their local geography, history, culture. Then schedule a video call (e.g. Skype, Hangouts) for students to both share their own local knowledge, and learn about someone else’s area.
    • Public Domain Historical Archive – copyright is limited by time, and old media eventually becomes part of the public domain, free for anyone to use. Ask students to choose a historical topic, and mine the internet for public domain archive material around this topic. Build a website using a free online tool (e.g. WordPress, Wix, Weebly), to bring together a range of such topics, for use by other schools or the local community.
    • Data Exploration – the World Bank, WHO and other organisations publish large data sets, ripe for authentic learning. Often these are hard to use, due to their size and structure. Make this data accessible and explorable to students with Google’s Public Data Explorer. Ask students to spot patterns in the world, and then research and unpack these patterns to extract lessons about the world.
  • Visual & Performing Arts
    • Meme Studies – unknown to most adults, our students are well versed in Internet memes, which shape and define most of their popular culture. The more visual of these memes provide rich and relevant ground for artistic analysis. Are these works art? Where do they come from? What influences them? How do they spread? How is one piece used to derive another (e.g. this lead to this which lead to this which lead to this)?
    • Collaborative Play Writing – using an online survey tool (e.g. Google Forms, Survey Monkey) ask members of your community to create characters for a play. Ask students to take this diverse cast, and build a narrative around it.
    • Automated Set Design – using Arduino, cardboard and tape, have students produce a model set with automated lights, curtains, sensor-driven cues, etc.
    • Classroom Design – introduce students to contemporary space design (e.g. Make Space), and ask them to use a design tool (e.g. Homestyler, Sketchup) to redesign their current learning space to their liking. Use a 3D printer (if you have one or can access one) to print a model. Have students present to school administrators to obtain funds to put their ideas into action.
    • Premature Ageing – use graphic design and aging software to have students consider their future selves, and what they might grow to become. For an example see Half-Old Portrait.
  • Physical Education
    • Fitness Data – use fitness trackers (e.g. FitBit, Polar) to help students gather data about themselves and the way they live. Bring this real data into lessons to ask students to consider their lifestyle, their fitness aims, and how they might develop.
    • Video Analysis – use ubiquitous cameras (phones, laptops, tablets) to have students capture athletic performance (e.g. long jump). Use video editing tools (e.g. WeVideo) to compare an equivalent professional athletic action with that of your students. Use this video to help students plan how to improve their own performance.
  • Languages
    • Online CollaborationDoulingo allows students to learn languages, whilst contributing to the massive online effort of translating web-based content. This means that students can make the web better, and improve their language skills, at the same time, for free.
    • Collaborative Subtitling – challenge your students to translate a video from one language to another, working collaboratively online (e.g. Amara).
    • International Connections – use Skype’s Classroom connectivity to have your students connect with language learners in other countries to exchange conversation time and tips.
  • Miscellaneous
    • Digital Scavenger Hunt – encourage students to hone their digital skills, problem solving and team work, using an online scavenger hunt, like this one.
    • Virtual Travel – use Google Tour Builder to create a virtual tour of  place you want students to experience, highlighting features and ideas relevant to your subject or topic as you go.
    • Consultancy – find a non-profit or company with a need, and offer your students to help them meet it. For example, in teaching cookery, it could be possible to help a company cater an event. Alternatively, students could offer their ICT skills to help solve computer-related problems.

Yes, this is hard work. Yes, it requires new skills. But, yes, students will engage and be enthused in new ways.

Once you start thinking in these terms, you can start coming up with your own, richer integrations. Alternatively search for “amazing classroom technology integration” in Google, or get onto Twitter and start building a community of practitioners to learn from. There is a whole world of sharing educators out there, into which we can tap.

Credit: butterfly thumbnail image by Benny Mazur on Wikimedia Commons shared under CC BY.

Make Space

Make SpaceI was first introduced to the book Make Space by John Burns at Shekou International School, where its lessons had been applied to make their campus more inclined to spark and kindle innovation. For those not familiar with it, Make Space brings together lessons learned at Stanford’s on the relationship between physical space, collaboration and creativity. The results on show at SIS were striking, and went far beyond my own efforts to create a teaching space that was less “classroom” and more “workspace”.

A year of germinating and working on other things, and I have finally spent some time browsing the book. Adding this to my previous thinking, experimenting and reading on the subject, I would love to design and build a studio workspace into a school. Such a studio would belong to no particular department, but would be bookable for use by anyone looking to break out of class, and set the scene for more creative, collaborative, flexible work. It might include some of the following features:

  • Relatively bare walls, unfinished concrete floor and lots of nature light. The ability for walls to be drawn on, repainted and hacked in other ways.
  • A range of seating including sofas, bean bags, foam cubes (which can become walls, building blocks, simulations), high stools.
  • A range of tables at different heights and surfaces for standing, sitting and leaning at, including’s Periodic Tables and Flip Tables.
  • Movable whiteboards (such as Z-Racks from Make Space), which can be used for sketching and partitioning ad hoc spaces. Dry erase surfaces on walls.
  • Having everything on wheels, so that sofas, desks, and boards can be moved and re-purposed at any time.
  • Moveable projectors for setting up ad hoc display areas.
  • Some distinct micro-environments around the edges, including a hot desk area and a cozy area.
  • Hacking and making tools and materials (such as Make Do) for rapid prototyping and construction.

Such a space would hopefully shift the school focus away from the teacher, and towards student-centered learning and creativity: not something you want all the time, but definitely a model to build students and teachers up to.

End Of Year Assessment 2014-15

ScalesAs has been my practice in the past, I recently unleashed an end of year survey on my students, with the aim of having them tell me what I can improve, and what they appreciate and enjoy. The survey, which can be viewed here, was relatively short, and focused primarily on overall feedback on our ICT program and its delivery, as well as thoughts on our new Free Learning pedagogy, which we have been piloting this term. I really want to give my students a sense that what I ask of them is only what I do myself: do some work, assess the work, see how we can improve, make changes to improve.

Embedded below is an analysis of the results received, including plenty of graphs, comments from students (both positive and negative), as well as my own conclusions, thoughts and targets. If you prefer a less cramped view, use this link.

At the end of this document is a list of 6 targets that I will aim to implement in the coming school year. These are summarised in the visual below, which aims to give students a quick look at the changes their comments will inspire:

ICT Targets 2015-16

All of this information will now be distributed to students and parents, and I will begin making plans to try and ensure that these targets are met during the coming school year.

Credits: thumbnail image by Steve Harwood on Flickr shared under CC BY-NC

Hands On Stuff

HandsOnStuff0At the end of last school year I asked my students for some feedback. One of the things that came through loudly was a desire for more hands on time. This was most acute in Year 8, where I had simply tried to sneak in a little too much theory. In response I turned two theory-heavy units into one, trimmed down the content, and gave more time over to hands on exploration. One of the new additions was a lesson where kids could just teardown and rebuild old electronics, which I put at the end of a unit spent fixing and driving remote control cars. Below are some photos of what was a really energetic and well-received lesson, in which I did relatively little teaching. Aside from promoting some individuals to think about what components were for, and why things were design in a certain way, I really just asked kids to think about why we throw so much away, instead of fixing it.


Why Traditional Assessment Sucks

ExamI spend a lot of time thinking about assessment, not just because I hate marking (which I really do), but because it determines so much of what I do as a teacher. As a less experienced educator I actually dropped content that students loved from my course just because I did not know how to assess it in a way that would make my school happy. This was obviously crazy, but I just did not know how to fight the machine in a convincing way, so I had to bend. This content has since come back in, and I am now simply not assessing it, a position I can happily defend.

Part of the problem with assessment is that it seeks to take the most beautiful, creative act: building knowledge, and stamp it into something simple, objective and comparable. We are told to turn complex, awesome human beings into a number, and then to stack them up so we know who is good and who is bad. Is it any wonder that students hate school, suffer from anxiety and don’t want to become life long learners?

Over the past two years I have been experimenting with a range of assessment approaches, trying to find something better. Working through ideas such as mass assessment, visual self assessment and slang assessment (giving grades from WTF to FTW or LOL to OMG) has led me to a new tool for this year: the Visual Assessment Guide. And whilst this isn’t final, I think it is a real improvement, a step in the right direction.

As I lay in bed tonight fighting off jet lag, it suddenly became clear to me why traditional assessment is so terrible, and what it is that I have been trying to achieve in fighting the status quo. The thoughts looked something like this Venn diagram:
Assessment Venn DiagramIn this model, the three circles mean the following :

  • Meaning: the assessment is authentic, relates to students’ lives and captures something important about the student themselves.
  • Ease-Of-Use: students and teachers find the process of assessment tolerable and it’s benefits outweigh its costs.
  • Objectivity: the results are comparable and consistent, they tie tightly to levels and descriptors.

The key here is that I believe we can never actually get to Area 1: this is the promised land, but it is just not possible. Of the three outcomes, two will always preclude the third. As an incomplete proof, consider that we can find some of the following examples of such assessments in the real world:

  • Area 2 (Ease-Of-Use + Objectivity) – quizzes, standardised tests, external examinations and other traditional forms of assessment.
  • Area 3 (Meaning + Objectivity) – complex rubrics such as APP (which students and teachers generally struggle to understand and apply).
  • Area 4 (Meaning + Ease-Of-Use) – verbal assessment, peer assessment and the kind of visual assessment mentioned above (

But where are the examples of Area 1? Personally, I have yet to see anything which comes close, but this is not a surprise if you agree with the axiom that it is impossible.

So, this leaves us educators with a stark and clear choice: what is more important to us, ranking and labelling students like livestock, or giving assessments that students can learn from and grow through. To me there is no choice, and my assessments this year will follow from this conclusion. There will be a mix of approaches, styles and methods, but in the end, meaning and ease-of-use will always trump objectivity. For, ultimately, no number or score can ever tell you anything really useful about any of my students, such as how happy, confident or personable they are.

Note: I know this is just one more step in the larger transition to a post-industrial model of education, and currently falls short of meeting the very industrial needs of higher education entry. Obviously this means it is incomplete for education as a whole, but for my own classroom, I am happy to proceed. I wonder, though, how it might scale?

Credit: Final Exam image from Wikipedia, shared under PD.