Tag Archives: education

Student Self Direction

One of the key design goals behind the Free Learning pedagogy was encouraging students to direct their own learning. Based on the experience that many students lack the skills to make the most of pure inquiry-based learning, Free Learning makes use of a map of varied learning opportunities to challenge students.

Over the past week I have been introducing the students and teachers of Year 5 and 6 at ICHK HLY (our Primary campus) to Free Learning. I have explained to students that the starting map is very small, but that I will be adding units as we go:

In particular, we are aiming to add units based on what students want to learn, in order that they feel themselves to be important agents within their own learning. The mechanism here is that the evidence that students submit to their first unit (Free Learning For Students, circle in blue in the map above, as an entry point) is a list of goals for ICT learning. By collating this list we have managed to put together the following list of units that students wish to have access to, and we are now in the process of building them:

  • Computer Teardown & Rebuild
  • ChromeBook Basics
  • Coding
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Building A Website
  • Computer security
  • Google Drive
  • Wifi troubleshooting
  • Web browsers
  • Keyboard shortcuts
  • Game design
  • Research skills
  • Drawing online
  • VR world building
  • Lego
  • Inside a phone
  • Chemicals in electronics
  • 3D Printer
  • Digital Art
  • Installing Adobe Flash Player
  • Makes Makey

Given that these students are between 9 and 10 years old, this list constitutes a remarkably diverse and interesting self-directed curriculum. Being a typical teacher, I had underestimated their own self awareness in terms of what they don’t yet know, and was taken aback by the extent of this list. In reflecting on this process it strikes me that this offers us a useful model to apply to the challenge of engaging students and encouraging agency, self-direction and motivation.

Now to start building some of those units…

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.

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.

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

The Learning Zone

When we are too comfortable we do not need to learn. When pushed too hard, we are not capable of learning. In between is the small zone, different for each of us, in which learning takes place. This theory of the learning zone (or as Vygotsky said, the Zone of Proximal Development), is widely used at my school, and reminds us that in any class we will have kids spread over all three zones. Hopefully, with skill, we can pull our students into the learning zone for more of their time, thus helping them become more effective learners.

As there were no good Creative Commons version of this graphic, I have produced the one below, so please feel free to use it.

The Learning Zone

Free Learning

Free LearningFree running* invites participants to use creativity, skill and strength to find new ways to navigate a landscape. It is fun, engaging and highly motivating for those who participate. It takes a space (urban or otherwise) and turns it on its head, drawing new function from an existing, very fixed, form.

In much the same way, Free Learning aims to provide students with an intellectual landscape through which they can playfully discover their own path. It promotes creativity, individuality, team work, freedom and taking responsibility.

* In its spirit what we are talking about is slightly more like parkour, than free running. I thought they were the same, but as @isaacklw taught me, they are slightly different. Read here for more.

Free Learning Map Interface
A view of content in Free Learning. Click for a larger image.

Tell Me More

Free Learning developed in response to my own experiences teaching ICT at International College Hong Kong, where I found myself slowly running out of steam as a classroom teacher. My experience was that as a teacher, working in the traditional school paradigm, I could construct teaching and learning opportunities that focused on all students, and that reached a minimum standard for most. However, to make these engaging and motivating, I had to work myself ragged, and in time, teaching and learning became rote and sterile. We (my students and myself) jumped through hoops together, to achieve things many kids were simply not interested in, or were encountering at the wrong time. Those who were engaged soared, a mass in the middle pushed on through in spite of it all, and the remainder suffered my terrible jokes for 3 years of ICT classes.

In this model, motivation is predominantly extrinsic, hinging largely on the energy and charisma of the teacher.

Free Learning dispenses with the pretense that students need to follow a set path as a group, by simply:

  1. Offering a large online menu of learning choices for students to learn from (we call these units, and they look like this).
  2. Allowing individuals and small ad hoc groups to chose their own path and pace through the units on offer.
  3. Providing a way for students to record which units they have chosen as they progress, and then to submit evidence (e.g. photos, work itself, text) for each unit. This can be done via our Free Learning Gibbon module, or some other method.
  4. Providing a way to map learning outcomes to units, and ways to see what students are currently working on, where they have already traveled, and what outcomes they have covered (or not)
  5. Assessing learning formatively based on observation and discussion, with aspects of summative assessment based on student submitted work and other evidence.

In this way, we can provide more choice, more personalised pathways and more motivation for students to learn. Students spend less time sitting and listening to the teacher, and more time working hands on in ways they enjoy.

By asking students to cover a range of outcomes, we can still help them cover broad swathes of content, but this need not be a focus (and for me it no longer is). If we can free ourselves of the delusions that kids currently cover everything (which they don’t, in any meaningful way) and that we can meaningfully measure learning (which we can’t, in any meaningful way), then we can be comfortable with something less regimented and less like an assembly line. Do all students really need the exact same experience? No.

Free learning, as a model, affords us a chance to set the classroom up for success by throwing out baggage brought along from industrial, conformity-driven, pre-Internet education. It represents the use of technology to finally revolutionise classroom practice.

Have A Go

As a teacher, you can experience Free Learning as a professional development tool using GorillaPD, which gives you roughly the experience of a student. This is a free-to-the-public installation of Gibbon, with Free Learning installed on it, and a growing range of units to help teachers become better at what they do.

Real World Progress

We have now (as of April 2017) been running Free Learning at ICHK Secondary for two years, for a minimum of 50% of student contact time in ICT, and the result is more student engagement, improved classroom energy and zero focus on grades. I learn more and have more fun, and all the evidence suggests that my students do to. Learning new, interesting and useful things is now the prime concern. The proof, so they say, is in the pudding, which you can see via our Free Learning Showcase.

Excitingly, I have been in a position to ask some current and former students to write units, a couple of which are already under way.

For those units involving gear not available in school, students can negotiate with parents to purchase what is needed (this is already common practice in Year 9 where students do an independent unit).

Learning Outcomes

As well as the assessment tools provided in Gibbon’s Free Learning module, I have also been using the Visual Assessment Guide with my Year 7-9 ICT, to enable longitudinal tracking.

Professional Development

Free Learning has featured as a presentation at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, 2015 Asia Pacific International Schools Conference, the 8th 21C Learning Hong Kong and RCHK Transform. If you are interested in running Free Learning in your classroom, school or organisation, please do get in touch. If you are looking for the slides used in a presentation you have seen, download them here, or browse it using the embed below:


“You had the presentation of the conference man. Your ideas resonate with me more than anyone else’s. You are a true inspiration to all educators. Keep spreading your message to the masses!” – Ryan Krakofsky, ICT Coordinator, Kingston Internal School

“I attended your free learning session at RCHK and I decided to use a modified version for our current media unit.  I wanted to thank you for the inspiration for this…it has inspired me to see how I can use this type of workflow more often. I am certain that it has met my students needs much better.” – Patricia Thomson, PYP Teacher, RCHK

“It is less stressful without peer comparisons and deadlines. You can choose the subject you want to focus on, it makes the lessons all the more interesting.” – Student, ICHK

“For me it’s fun but hard ; )” – Student, ICHK

“I feel like it is great to let students study what they want to, but still have to complete certain units to be able to move on to the next one, that sort of makes it like a game with levels and different paths.” – Student, ICHK

“It is AWESOME!!!” – Student, ICHK


Some of the ideas here are based on the work of Sugatra Mitra and the related work shown in Good’s Future Learning video. Others have emerged from Toby Newton’s work on independent student learning in Human Technology at ICHK. This work is very much an extension of the work already being done by students at ICHK in their Year 7-9 ICT studies.

Credits + License

Free Learning is an original idea by Ross Parker (https://rossparker.org, @rossparker), created in December 2014 whilst working at ICHK. It is shared under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.

Free Running thumbnail image by Alexandre Ferreira on Flickr under CC BY.

Assess This Teacher

Gress LessonYesterday I put together an end-of-year survey for my students. Instead of focusing on lots of questions on different aspects of my teaching, I simply asked students to grade me in the same way I grade them: a comment, an attainment score and an effort score. I also asked them to tell me their most and least favourite projects. The response was immediate, with 50 submissions in less than 12 hours (out of a possible 150 students). A quick scan of the data showed a good mix of positive feedback and things I could improve on. Some of these things I already knew, others were revealing.

I really want the kids to know that I am serious about becoming a better teacher, so I acted fast to analyse the data and make a list of things that will be changed come next year. These include the following:

  • My teaching style:
    • Talk less in class, giving students more time to work
    • Give students more time to explore ICT individually (this will most likely take the form of more free time at the end of lessons where students have focused well.
    • Give students more time to work outdoors (we can hold discussions on the lawn, and students can work spread around school).
  • Curriculum design:
    • Introduce a new, improved and less resstrictive visual assessment guide. There will be less self assessment (2x per year instead of 4), and a new chance for peer assessment once a year.
    • Instead of giving attainment grades, I will experiment with just saying whether students are: knowing, doing, understanding, judging or creating. The focus will be on being a better learner, and not obssessing about grades so much.
    • In Year 7 I will seek to make the Tools For Learning unit more interesting.
    • In Year 8 I will get rid of the High Tech Stuff assessment task, and try to make the year more hands on.
    • Year 9 – I will add in a unit on mobile app development, as many students enjoyed the Web Design 101 in Y8 this year and would like to learn more. However, for those who don’t like programming, there will be a choice to do an independent unit if there is something a student would rather learn.

Hopefully my students will see me modelling what I ask of them (try something, assess your performance, find ways to improve, follow through), and understand that I really do want to be a better teacher, and do myself what I expect of them. No one likes a hypocrite, right? In order to try and stick to these goals, I have added the curriculum ideas into my plan for next year, and created the poster below to remind me of what I need to be focusing on:

My Pledge 201415_web

Visual Assessment Guide

What started last year as a Self Assessment Guide, has been reworked into a more general tool for assessment. This new guide is suitable for teacher, peer or self assessment and also offers a visual map of what we want students to learn (with highlighting of which concepts are most important). Although still ICT specific, this guide could be adapted to any subject by changing the attributes and keywords.

Visual Assessment Guide - ICT & Media_web

Printable Version (PDF)

So, what’s changed? Well, after a year of experience with student self assessment using the original guide, I have come to the following conclusions.

  1. Self assessment is great, and students really learn a lot by revisiting concepts learned, and writing about them. However, students get bored of self assessment, so using it more than 3 times a year with one group is not so great. The assessment tool should thus by more general, useful for teachers and peers to use.
  2. The old guide was based around “strands”, which were essentially high level learning outcomes. The new guide focuses on “attributes”, as I really want to be centered around the kind of students I want leaving my course after three years. The two schools I am involved in (ICHK Secondary and ICHK HLY) include formal ICT learning from Years 1 to 9, and we have tentatively decided to use these attributes across the entire age range. Hopefully this will lend consistency to what we are doing, allowing us to be more effective.
  3. In the original guide there was mapping from the ways of learning (a Bloomsian set from knowing through creating), allowing these to be turned into numeric scores. This was never ideal, as it is too reductionist and focuses attention on the grade, not what has been learned. The new version dispenses with the levels, and just focuses on the ways of learning. It has been tentatively agreed that next year I can experiment with reporting the top way of learning achieved in a particular piece of work. Hopefully this will help
  4. The old category of “becoming” connotes a moral element to what is being taught, and means assigning levels based on my own world view. Whilst I might find this appropriate, others may not. This point was raised by Toby Newton, and whilst I was initially hesitant, I can see the value of his point that we need students to be more critical of what we say, not just accepting and applying everything automatically.

I am really keen to get feedback on this style of assessment, and on the ICT content included and omitted from the guide. I don’t doubt that collaboration will make this idea more useful and usable.

Carpet Picnic

CarpetTry as I might, there are some things I simply cannot teach without a fair amount of talking. I can throw in some visual stimuli, get the kids involved in discussion, add some inquiry and generally try and be student-centered…but there are just too many difficult ideas that need to be talked through. One such topic is the media concept of representation. In short, this is a consideration of the way in which reality is portrayed and distorted by the lens of media. A typical example, and one of great import, would be the way women are objectified by an industry led by men.

Whilst my course is officially titled “ICT & Media”, I am no media guru, and the students spend much more time on the ICT side of things. However, representation is one area I really want students to work on, as it is fundamental in becoming a critical thinker. For the last few years I have used the extended trailer of Miss Representation to look at this issue, and it has been generally successful. This year I had another video, The Mask You Live In, which I planned to add into the mix. I feeling pretty pleased to have two excellent, thought-provoking videos which looked at, amongst much else, both sides of gender in the media.

A few months ago, having seen a very impressive talk by Germain Greer, I was toying with ideas of how to be a better orator for these lessons that must be talked out. I came to the conclusion that if I sat level with the kids, we might establish a better personal connection. So, I dragged a group of Year 8s out of the classroom, and we had a lesson sitting on the lawn. This was great, but within 10 minutes everyone was mosquito-bitten and itchy, and desperate to go back inside.

In reflecting on this, it occurred to me that an indoor version of this might be more effective and workable during the summer months. This seed morphed into the idea of an informal “carpet picnic”, where students could bring in food, drinks, blankets and pillows. And what better time to try this, than in a lesson looking at representation. Being the end of the year, the kids are also desperate for something novel.

Having now tried this with two classes I can report it is an effective technique, and the kids really enjoyed it. Pleasingly, the discussion was deeper, and with broader involvement, than when kids sit at their desks. Some of the students really opened up, sharing sides of themselves that I had not previously seen. At times trading of food was distracting, but on the whole I think the experience was positive. In both classes, enough students made the effort to bring in blankets, and those without clearly wanted to share and be included. There were even some stuffed toys, as well as a pretty cool poncho, on display. In the end it seemed to be a cross between regular lesson and end-of-year party, with the students in a good, yet focused, mood.

Ultimately I was most pleased to see students take an interest in issues of gender, equality, diversity, history and their own place in the world. It was also nice that, on leaving, one student paused to say “thanks for this amazing lesson Mr. Parker”: as lovely as my students are, such compliments are a rarity.

The carpet picnic will become a regular feature next year, but come November I will definitely have the kids back out on the lawn.

Image credit: Carpet image shared by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay under CC0 (Public Domain)