Adventures In School Management

Today I am presenting at 21CLHK9, along with Mel Varga, hoping to give other schools a look at the process ICHK and TIS have been through in variously building, implementing and improving Gibbon.

The aim is to suggest that schools need not be beholden to corporate interests in how they operate and manage their data, and that there is value in community, openness and design by educators.

Exemplar Me vs Me

In consider the topic of digital citizenship, and refecting on their own identity and participation in online platforms, I ask my students to create a piece of design work called Me vs. Me. Most students follow my lead and use raster editing software (such as Acorn) to combine photos and digital avatars of themselves. Recently, however, we have had a Year 13 student leading an Digital Art activity (with accompanying Free Learning unit), and so we now have a growing number of students who are learning to use digital drawing tablets.

I was really excited to see a couple of girls in one of my classes taking the initiative with their Me vs Me, and apply their newly learned skills to express themselves through digital drawing. What I was not expecting was work of such high artistic value, nor work that was quite so insightful as that submitted by Della (click for full size):

In reflecting on her work, Della said “The online side is more about when you are online you are kind of care free and can express you self and what you like and also you could post or say things that make people think of you in a different way then you actually are. The home me is more about the reality of life and how its stressful and how you have things to do but then just end up procrastinating and then getting more stressed”.

Such deep thinking is not commonly expressed through student work (although I don’t doubt it goes on regularly) and sits perfectly with the art work. In following up, I commented: “Della, well done on an excellent piece of work here. You have taken the elements discussed in class, and seen in the exemplar work, and presented them in a style of your own, showing creativity and technical skill. Digital drawing is tough, and you seem to be making some real progress. In terms of the ideas of identity and participation that we have discussed in class, I love the honest look into the real you, and how it compares to the much more polished online you. Why are people unwilling to sometimes show the real “them” online? I do also like the privacy-protecting use of your name as “Dekka” in the online you. clever! I am going to take the “losing my mind” bit with a pinch of salt. However, if you do feel you are struggling with something, then it is best to talk to a trusted adult, as seeking guidance makes almost all problems better. This is definitely the best work I have ever seen from you. Well done : )”.

On further reflection, and given Della’s input on procrastination and stress, I will recommend her to look at a Free Learning unit called Digital Organisation, and a second one (when it is published) on Focus.

As a teacher it is not every lesson that students really open up to us, but carefully designed work, which engages student interest, can definitely help. What is really pleasing here, from an ICT teacher point of view, is that whilst teenagers are often portrayed as helpless, hapless victims of circumstance, Della has shown that she has a strong grasp on some of the existential difficulties of being an adolescent in 2017. This is a great point from which to make good decisions and change one’s situation.

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.

Epic Wallpapers 3

This is a third collection of wonderful Epic Wallpapers produced by my year 7 students. The pieces were chosen for the strength of their designs, attention to detail, Creative Commons licensing and overall appeal. Well done to the students for creating such lovely work. Feel free to download the designs, which are all at a variety of resolutions (depending on student screen size), but should fill most screens.

Gamer Spotting For Teachers

wasdThis post was originally posted on the #teachICHK site at ICHK.

As in any school, our students do sometimes get distracted in class. However, rather than traditional distractions of days gone by (passing notes, firing spit balls), we see that distraction often takes the form of off-task laptop use (chatting online, checking social media, gaming). In particular, gaming is a temptation that certain students find it hard to resist.

In the past we had a system of being able to monitor student screens remotely (at least in the Secondary school), but this proved incompatible with building trust and forming adult-adult interactions, and was fairly useless at any rate (those kids who wanted to game worked out how to disable it).

A much more effective way to spotting students gaming in class is to look out for the following tells that students produce subconsciously. These often apply to non-gaming off-task activities as well, although they are more obvious during gaming. Try to keep an eye out for these, and approach students who you suspect of gaming, so you can discuss the issue.

  • Keyboard & Mouse Use – different activities produce different patterns of keyboard and mouse use. For example, during a typing activity, we would expect students to use the full range of keys. If they are focusing on one part of the keyboard particularly (see image below for common gaming keys), or predominantly on the trackpad/mouse, they are most likely not typing.
  • Body Language – students busy gaming often becoming really immersed in their game world, and seemingly forgetting where they are IRL. You might see students leaning in close to their screen, getting physically worked up, or suppressing the urge to call out.
  • Screen Hiding – often students will try and sit in a position where their screens are out of sight, perhaps against a wall or under a desk. Sometimes this is innocent (just students getting comfortable), other times it is not.
  • Three Finger Swipe – by keeping a game on a separate virtual desktop on their Mac, students can quickly swipe back to work. This three-finger swipe is a good sign that something is being hidden.
  • The Guilty Look – a three finger swipe is often preceded by a quick look up, if a student suspects you are heading their way.

With any luck you can put these tells to use to signal to your students know that you are aware of what they are doing, making them less likely to try it on. At the same time, consider why your students are distracted, and find ways to get them more engaged through curriculum appeal, active group work, non-laptop based learning, etc.

Our School As A Box

Our School As A Box ThumbThis year staff at ICHK Secondary started the school year with a great PD session lead by one of our new team members, Phil Morgan. A deep thinker around creativity and education, Phil brought us up to speed on some ideas around creative thinking, and then challenged us to decorate a box that could be used to sell our school. Divided into groups, every member of staff became obsessively engaged in the task, with the allocated hour’s working time disappearing in no time.

The 6 resulting items were a wonder to behold, and incorporated a huge range of bizarre styles, ideas, tricks and features, including one with a mobile phone installed inside, so you could capture your image and become part of the product.

In the end, we were asked to vote for our favourite, a process that everyone was so invested in that we elected to skip our coffee break. Much to my surprise, my lovely group (including Veronica, Jimmy, Erin and Hannah), ended up winning, with the design below.


The box is now in a display case in school, accompanied by the text below:

ICHK. Our box is, like our school, brightly presented, precisely formed with attention to detail, and the result of a collaborative team effort. It’s bright colours, bold lettering and green adornment reflect an intentionally small school with unique aims, nestled in Hong Kong’s verdant North.
As a small, personal school, we look to educate students as individuals: one at a time. Our box seeks to represent this individual learning journey as a ladder, which a student is climbing, supported from below by each and every member of the teaching team. The student, stating “I can’t do it…yet” is aware that learning is tough, but that with perseverance, effort, support and a growth mindset, he too can “make it”.
The “it” to which the student aims is the goal of Learning Together, Thoughtfully, to which our Head of School cheerfully exhorts us from his cutout in the side of the box. He is within the box, at its heart, but also looking outwards as he charts the way forward. Yet, and this is key, he is also on the front of the box, guiding the thriving student as part of the team.
On the side and back of the box we see a list of Ingredients and a Nutrition Guide. These show a school formed of Thriving Students, Best Possible Teachers, an Environment For Living and Learning and much more. They suggest a serving size of 1 (child at a time), with a total number of servings of 278 (students in the school). The sum total of the box offers nutrition in the form of appropriate quantities of Attitudes, Skills and Knowledge, and a 100% RDI of Direction-Alignment-Commitment.
Ultimately, box and school are both so much more than the sum of their parts.

In closing up the session, Phil introduced us to a number of interesting books around creativity, including the one from which the box activity is drawn: Game Storming. Overall this was one of the best PD and team building sessions I have ever attended.

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.

End Of Year Assessment, 2015-16

Potato_cv_dejimaAlthough I try not to over-assess my students, they still come under scrutiny from me in terms of their work and approaches to learning. It only seems fair then, that I come under scrutiny from them. So, it is quite a long standing tradition that I issue a survey at the end of each year, and then set targets for the following year, based on student input. When I started teaching, this was as much to affirm that I was doing the right thing: of late it has become an exercise in ongoing professional development, as I seek to hone my craft and improve what it is that I offer to my students. This year’s survey was issued a few weeks ago, and with 33% of students having responded, it seemed like a good time to have a look at the results, make some judgements, and feedback to students. The result was the email below:

Dear students,

Thanks to all of you who took the time to complete the ICT feedback survey I sent out a couple of weeks ago. I appreciate your time and candour: your honest input is really useful as I try and become a better teacher. Below I will summarise some of the conclusions I have come to from your data, if you are interested in following up.

In total, 46 people filled out the survey, which is 33% of all ICT students at ICHK. Although not a high number in absolute terms, this is a reasonable percentage for survey responses, and so should allow us to draw some useful, if not definitive, conclusions.

I will split the feedback into several sections, as highlighted below. Things you might want to take action on are marked in red.

General Mood

It seems that on the whole, Y7-9 students at ICHK value their ICT education, and feel it is worthwhile, as indicated by a mean of 3.8, and the distribution seen below. This is something I feel in the classroom, with most students working hard and trying to learn as much as they can from their classroom time.

Inline image 2


Over the course of this year I have made an effort to shift more interactions towards adult-to-adult (in Transactional Analysis terms). Although I know I am still not doing this as much as I would like, your feedback suggests I have improved.

Inline image 3

Inline image 4I feel the level of respect is really mutual, with most students doing their best to take things seriously, and act in an adult fashion, most of the time. This certainly makes class more fun and rewarding : )

Free Learning

Although we piloted Free Learning last year, this was the first year in which we have done a lot of it. On the whole it has proven popular (as shown below), although there were some concerns about not having enough variety of topics, and in the balance of time for free vs traditional learning. These are points I will try and address in the section below.

Inline image 5

Improvements For Next Year

In terms of what might be improved, the following stand out:

  • Free Learning Variety
    • Some students commented that there are not enough Free Learning units in areas they are interested in.
    • At current I am working to add in some HT units, which will intersect with ICT, and which you can study using your ICT class time.
    • Other teachers are starting to add content to Free Learning too. Eventually we hope to have a massive library of units, with areas of interest for everyone.
    • If you have any suggestions for things you would like to see, please let me know by reply email.
  • Free Learning Balance
    • At current Y7 is light on Free Learning, whilst Y8 is heavy. I will see if there is anything I can do to adjust this in the coming year.
    • If there are any normal units you think should be dropped or moved, or if you have strong views on this area, let me know by reply email.
  • Outdoor Time
    • We have had a little more outdoor lessons this year, but according to at least 8 of you, still not enough.
    • If you want to work outdoors, ask at the beginning of any lesson. I can’t always say yes, due to the nature of the lesson, but will try to make this happen as much as I can.
  • Air Conditioning
    • As with every year, quite a few of you commented on the AC situation in C108 (although this year no one commented on the smell, which is one of the things I aimed to improve this year ; )
    • This is one thing I really will not compromise on, as it is a core belief for me, for the following reasons:
      • The more aircon you use, the hotter you feel when you go outdoors: I sweat much less than I used to now that I use less AC.
      • Hong Kong’s air is often very polluted, partly due to our reliance on coal to power our homes, schools and offices. Anything we can do to reduce our output of airborne pollutants is positive…this is also why I choose not to drive a car to school.
      • Our atmosphere is accumulating CO2 at an alarming rate, and we are only beginning to understand the possible negative effects of this, as express through climate change. Anything we can do to limit this is good.
      • We are running down global supplies of fossil fuels, and should prepare for a future where we have less energy to feast on: why cool the air, just so it can be immediately heated by nature?
      • Humans have thrived for thousands of years with no air conditioners. Yes, you might be hot and uncomfortable, but we are a resilient species, and grit is something you can learn through practice. Train your mind to ignore the discomfort.
    • In short, you experiencing air-conditioning in C108 is about as unlikely as me becoming an iPhone user, tourist travel to Mars or Donald Trump acting like a nice human being.
    • Sometimes it is worth standing by beliefs you feel are right, even if they are unpopular. Sorry!

Apologies for the long post. Here is a Creative Commons potato (by Fk on Wikimedia Commons, shared under CC BY-SA):

Inline image 7

Have a great summer : )


PS, This email is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.


Classroom Graffiti Art

StencilA few years ago I started to think of ways to make my classroom more aesthetically pleasing. A large space, with dark blue walls but plenty of natural light, I felt it could be made more welcoming and interesting. Having recently seen a film on Shackleton’s Antartic escapades, I recalled his use of Browning’s wonderful line “For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave”, and wondered if I could emblazon it upon a wall.

Feeling I lacked the skill to do it justice, I asked some art students to do it for me, advising them to stencil rather than paint freehand. The result was impactful, and got me started thinking about cutting and spraying myself.

The result, generated over a period of 3 years, is a total of 13 pieces of art work, each created with stencil and spray paint. Generally I create the stencils digitally, and then blow them up with Image Splitter, before printing, sticking, cutting, mounting and finally painting. Over time I have learned a few tricks and become more ambitious, with the result that the newer pieces generally look better than the older ones. The gallery of finished works below is presented in chronological order.

Educator, Programmer, Author