Tag Archives: learning

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.

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.

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.

Digital Scavenger Hunt PD

HaystackOver the summer holidays I spent quite some time thinking about how best to use 3 upcoming whole-staff professional development sessions planned for my school. In the past I have found that no matter how charming, funny, well prepared or handsome I try to be, PD sessions never come out as well as I hoped. It’s not that people don’t learn, it is just that they are never as good as the lessons I delivered to my students.

As I pondered this I wondered what would happen if I took one of my better lessons, and adapted it to fit the needs of teachers. The original concept was an online treasure hunt, and whilst it was centred around Sherlock Holmes, a lot of the tasks fitted with an area I really wanted to develop in our staff: basic web literacy skills.

What evolved was a digital scavenger hunt in which teachers collaborated in small groups to problem solve their way towards a final solution. Along the way, they would be exposed to the following skills:

  • Link Shortening – using bit.ly, goo.gl or tinyurl.com to turn long links into short links. This is useful when people need to write down a link, or if you want to track usage of a link.
  • Text Search – simply using Google’s web search functionality to answer a question, such as “second digit used in binary counting systems”.
  • Image Search – drag and drop an image into images.google.com to search for images based on an image, rather than on text. Very useful for identifying logos, art work, etc. Google Goggles is an Android app that does this, but not as well as the web site. Does not work well with Safari (this is a great teachable moment about browser foibles)
  • QR Codes – creating codes with links, pictures, text, etc, using a QR code generator (I like http://www.qrstuff.com, but there are tonnes). Scan codes using a mobile phone with appropriate scanning app (I like QRDroid for Android), or using a website such as webqr.com (as long as it is not blocked, only works with Chrome).
  • Google Street View – getting students to step out of the classroom into a real life setting and look for clues. Make sure you test it ahead of time to make sure things have not changed if the Google car has been around and updated the area.
  • Steganography – hiding a message and make students search for it. Use hidden ink, or the HTML equivalent of setting the background and foreground to the same color. This should work with word processing as well.
  • Music Search – use Shazam or SoundHound on a phone or desktop to identify a piece of music, and then search online for a lyric or piece of band trivia.
  • Twitter Search – use a popular hashtag, and hide a tweet instead a stream of other tweets. Beware of inappropriate content outside of your control.

Each of these skills can be applied in the classroom to make learning more interesting, whilst most of them also offer the benefit of allowing teachers to work smarter and faster online.

The first time I ran this session, the teachers got very caught up, to the point where it really felt like having a group of my regular students engaged and learning together. The feedback from the session was very positive, and led to teachers being encouraged to integrate some of these ideas into their classrooms.

This leaves me with the awkward question of how to top this and make use of my 2 remaining in-house PD session.

If you are interested in running this same session, or one similar, check out the complete documentation. Everything is available under a CC license, so feel share to reuse, remix and share.

Update: thanks to Janice Dwyer for taking this work, adapting it for Year 6 Maths, and sharing it back here.

Credit: Haystack image via Wikimedia Commons, under PD.

Should We Stop Teaching Handwriting?

FloppyWhilst I am no fanboy, there is one thing that I think Apple does well: phasing out obsolete technology. Whether it was floppy drives in the 90s or DVD drives and Ethernet ports in the 10s, there is no place in Apple machines for old technology. And it’s not just hardware, but software too: remember when they ended OS 9 app support in Lion?

Some would argue that Apple move too fast on this front, causing difficulties for those consumers who need to keep these legacy technologies in use for reasons beyond their control. However, many others would argue that in expunging the old, we make way for the new, giving space for innovative new technologies to flourish. Of course, there is no right or wrong answer here, just multitudinous levels of positive and negative effects on individuals, aggregated to tell us something about the overall cost or benefit.

To me it seems like the classical art of hand writing is today where floppies were in the mid 1990s: still useful, still in active use, but on the verge of a precipitous decrease in utility. Of course, hand writing is still an amazingly useful technology to master: it lets you write quick notes, fill out archaic government forms, sit archaic exams and operate when the power goes down. However, there is another way to look at this, and it revolves around a key question:

Can we justify the expense, in terms of learning time and energy, of teaching 5 year-olds to write today, when more than likely their adult lives will most likely not involve much handwriting?

Again, there is of course no right or wrong here, just a range of options with a variety of probable outcomes. On the positive side, time not given over to rote learning of hand forming letters could be used to improve any number of other skills, values or outcomes. On the negative side, students would become dependent on electronic aides (but aren’t we all already?), and might lose out on some fine motor skill development. I am sure experts could weigh in here with plenty more points on either side.

Perhaps we could take a middle ground and teach students to print legibly in block capitals, whilst not insisting they learn to write lengthy scripts in formal hand writing? Would this solution offer the best of both worlds? Perhaps.

I can imagine this same scene played out repeatedly through history as we moved through a long series of different writing technologies. Should our young scholars continue to learn to carve, or should we allow them to use this infernal, unreliable and ethereal new ink? Think of the children!

At some point educationalists, most likely those in primary schools, will need to start grappling with this question. With ever increasing lists of skills, values and outcomes to teach students we need all the classroom time we can get. On the other hand, perhaps we could just overthrow the whole system. At any rate, I would love to see some further research done into this, perhaps with an effort to judge when exactly is the right time to stop teaching children to write in the way we currently do.

Credit: Dysan disk image by Farmer Jan on Wikipedia, shared under PD.

ICT In Schools

iPod OpenerOver the last few years I have noticed a dispiriting trend in schools: less and less discreet ICT being taught in fewer and fewer schools. This seems odd in the face of the massive increase in and reliance on ICT in the very same schools. Whilst, yes, I am an ICT teacher, I can’t shake the feeling that there is something very wrong with this picture. Our entire history and survival as a species has been facilitated and extended by the application and development of technology, and ICT is the most disruptive and powerful technology of our time. Surely now is the time to teach students to really understand, respect, master and, ultimately, tame ICT. How else can we prepare our students to be happy, balanced and productive individuals?

So, what could be causing this disparity between need and reality? The sections below explore some of the factors.


It is not a surprise that most students are more tech savvy than their teachers, and that this pattern is most notable (in general) amongst older teachers. In particular, it seems, that this gulf is widest between school leaders/administrators and those they are making decisions for. The result of this a perception amongst teachers that students are already prepared for the ICT-enabled world, and that curriculum time is better spent elsewhere. This view is most extreme in those who subscribe to the theory of digital natives. However, if you really look closely at student ability, you see a patchy set of skills, underscored by need, not holistic understanding and context. It seems that this illusion of broad competence and understanding is extremely harmful in making sure students really are ready for what the future holds.


In a lot of schools, especially in the IB world, ICT teaching has been rolled into, or subsumed by, other subjects. As a result, there may be the presence of ICT outcomes, but they are not being delivered by specialist ICT teachers. As anyone who has studied and worked in ICT can tell you, ICT is so broad and complex, that just lighting up the map of its constituent parts takes years. Leaving the sharing of such knowledge to non-specialists seems a big ask, no matter how well designed the curriculum, or how noble the intentions.

Edit: of course, ICT does need to be integrated across the curriculum as well, as it can enhance almost any area of study. However, I believe without dedicated, discreet, specialist instruction, other ICT use will certainly not be as powerful as it could. Thanks to @danfbridge for helping me to clarify this.

Users, Not Makers

Following from the sections above, and owing to a lack of specialist teachers, it seems that where ICT is covered it often focuses on students merely applying existing technology. As a result the majority of students leave school without any idea of how ICT technologies are built, and with zero hands on experience tinkering with hardware, software and networks. There is little doubt that the future will belong to those who control information and information systems (yes, this is the way it has always been, but the game is changing in terms of the tools used). Why then, are we focused on producing users, when what we really need is students with the knowledge and skills to build, assess, improve and overthrow technologies?

Not Sexy

I have heard it said that “ICT is not sexy”, and so it is a hard sell. Whilst I disagree with this axiom, even if it were true, so what? Maths and English are far from sexy, but their importance as key literacies are recognised and appropriately reflected is school design. It is hard to argue that mastery of ICT is not  a key literacy in the emerging, information-driven economy. As to the original axiom: given our fascination with shiny little gadgets, ICT sure seems sexy to me…too sexy in fact, which is a perspectives students definitely need a place to consider.

Gender Difference

Whilst ICT engagement initially seems gender neutral, it is clear that older girls are, at some point, being turned off studying ICT. Whilst I have yet to identify why this is happening amongst my own students, it is something that I will be researching this year, and that I hope to start tackling in the near future. The sad truth is that an ICT sector powered only by men is one that is much diminished and terminally misguided for a lack of women. Equally, it is sad to see so many young girls move away from pursuits and careers which can be so fulfilling. Ultimately, as an ICT teacher, it is clear that to drive uptake and penetration of ICT is schools, we need to keep girls engaged.

Whilst I have these points clear in my mind, what I currently lack is the means to interest more schools in the teaching and learning of ICT. What I am certain of, however, is that this is an area that needs serious attention as we shape the future of education.

Teaching & Learning Visualisations

The two visualisations below are part of an ongoing attempt to define my views on education, and make these accessible to my students, fellow teachers, parents and leaders. I would be interested to hear if and how you find them useful, and what you think could be improved.

1. Teaching & Learning: Style Comparison

Teaching & Learning Style Comparison_web

Download A2 Printable Version (PDF) | Download 1680 x 1050px Wallpaper Version (PNG)

2. Teaching & Learning: Essential Mindsets

Teaching & Learning Essential Mindsets_web

Download A2 Printable Version (PDF) | Download 1680 x 1050px Wallpaper Version (PNG)

Teach A Teacher 2013: Writeup

Teach A Teacher ParticipantsTeach A Teacher is part unit of study, part conference. Hosted at HLYIS this year, the event featured students from ICHK, and teachers from JIS, HLYIS, ICHK and ESF Kindergardens.

The aim is for students to work in groups to prepare and deliver professional development sessions for teachers. Students develop their abilities in presentation, communication and collaboration. Teachers get to learn new skills, and see education from the other side of the desk:

“I could sense that the students loved the topics they taught and it showed in their enthusiasm. Made me think of how my students see me when I teach.” – Participating teacher

And students start to understand what life is like for their teachers.

“This activity helped the students to know a teacher’s role and what it is like for their teachers. The interaction between teachers and students was great.” – Participating teacher

During ICT classes, students spent time devising, naming, imagining and planning their sessions. They presented to each other, to themselves, and to a few teachers too. Their work was filmed and reviewed by themselves and their peers. Over 9 lessons of 70 minutes each, groups polished, improved, refined and rehearsed. They strove to be imaginative, creative, clear and professional. On the day, all were nervous, but at the same time they managed to channel their energy into doing a great job. At times, they modeled current best-practice in the classroom:

“I think this group of boys were exceptional in their preparation and communication. I loved how hands on it was and they let us learn by doing.”

Relieved to be finished, students commented on how happy they were, and how much they enjoyed their experience. But, as is the way with technology, not everything went to plan:

“I really enjoyed the Teach A Teacher event. I have experienced that being a teacher is not that easy, you need to plan out the lesson really carefully. I noticed that I should always plan about what would you need to do when you’re having technical difficulties.” – Charlie Yau, Year 7 Student

Asked how they found the experience of being taught by students, teachers reported the following:

“It was a very good learning experience both for students and teachers. I enjoyed it a lot.”

“Loved the fun aspect of the presenter that used the sword in place of a pointer!”

“Great! I learnt a lot and felt very comfortable with the students teaching me. The best thing about this is that I can ask silly questions and not be laughed at!”

This is an event which will definitely be repeated, and hopefully expanded, in 2014. Please feel free to email me if you wish to receive information about next year’s event, either to come as a learner, or to enter student teams from your school.