Tag Archives: primary

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…

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.

Map Games

These games are fantastic, not only for geography, but for any subject where teachers wish to promote teamwork, encourage students to solve problems, remember patterns, learn more about the world or just get engaged. In the past I have used these games with EAL students as a way to get them talking and interested.

Dalit Manual Scavengers

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer… (listen at 47 min 13 sec)

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey complaining about the “youth of today”, I often get the feeling that my students have no idea just how lucky they have it. That said, I too am generally blithely aware of just how easy I myself have it.

Having listened to this interview, I cannot help but contrast my own life circumstances with that of India’s Dalit population: those born into the untouchable caste, destined to a lifetime of hardship and discrimination. The interviewer talks with a Dalit lady named Lakshmi, who makes her living by emptying human waste from non-flushing toilets. In the course of her day’s work, which fits under the heading of “manual scavenging”, she is regularly covered in excrement, and as a result faces terrible discrimination. As one example, she is not allowed to touch food at the markets, and when she wishes to purchase something she is made to pick it up from the floor, well away from the other customers. The sadness with which she tells her tale drives home the vast disparity in the way in which our world’s riches are distributed.

The Majestic Plastic Bag

Despite the fact that sarcasm is often held to be the lowest form of wit, a mockumentary can be a great way to introduce students to a topic. This beautifully crafted video gives plastic bags the full nature documentary treatment, and in doing so provides a humorous way for students to approach a very serious topic. For environmental leaders, this can provide a great jumping-off point for school-based action. From a Media Studies perspective, it also provides a way for students to think critically about the distinction between content and presentation. This can lead to discussions on the production of persuasive, emotive content that is not necessarily grounded in truth (such as propaganda).

The Curious Incident

During a CPD discussion on risk assessment yesterday, the issue of taking children with autism on field trips came up. In particular, we discussed the fact that seemingly innocuous changes to routine and surprises can have unexpected and potentially disastrous consequences. Whilst my own experience teaching students with autism is limited, I feel that Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has given me a solid understanding of what these students go through.

The book follows a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (which is on the autism spectrum, despite claims that it should not be) as he tries to solve a mysterious murder. Although the book is disarmingly simple, it does an amazing job of shifting the reader’s perception of reality, allowing a brief glimpse into one of the many ways that the human mind can function. If there is one book all teachers should read…this might perhaps be it!


Embedding is one of the most empowering techniques available to student and teacher bloggers, effectively allowing free syndication of content created by others. In website design, embedding is the process of taking content from one site and displaying it within your own. It is easy to confuse this process with copy and paste, however it is subtly different. With copy and paste the blogger is actually moving the content into their site. Embedding on the other hand, simply displays the content remotely from its original content. As an example of embedding, consider the books displayed on the right-hand side of this site.

Online services (such as Delicious, LibraryThing and YouTube) encourage people to embed their content as it drives traffic to their sites, and helps spread the word on what they offer. For bloggers, embedding provides a rich alternative to simply linking to content, allowing for the creation of a site based on the principle of mashup, where something new is created from a series of new and existing elements.

Different blogging platforms apply different restrictions to embedding, as certain techniques can pose security risks. By far the most flexible approach is to host your own blog using an open source platform (such as WordPress), although this requires a certain level of technical expertise and a small financial overhead. A reasonable alternative is to use a hosted solution, (of where there are many such as Blogger, WordPress.com, TypePad and LiveJournal). Of all the hosted solutions that I have tried, Blogger provides the best combination of flexibility, structure, features and ease of use. That said, occasionally an embed fails to work (e.g. Delicious link role), and a workaround is required (e.g. using the equivalent RSS feed).

Project Gutenberg


Project Gutenberg is an online repository of books that are out of copyright, and thus freely available for anyone to use. With over 30,000 books currently available, this site provides a great source for gratis reading material. However, more important than this, it provides a massive amount of text that can be mashed and remixed in any way you or your students can dream up. Free from the constraints of copyright, and available in unfettered digital form, why not try some of the following ideas:

  • Use Wordle to create fantastic word clouds, which can be used to pick out themes or learn vocab.
  • Give students part of a text and ask them to write an extension or introduction to it.
  • Take a famous novel and come up with some crazy alternative endings.
  • Use Flickr Storm (free photos) and Storybird (digital storytelling) to create a picturebook version of a text.
  • Work as a class to produce an audio version of a book, publish it with Creative Commons and give it away on the web.
  • Take a novel and remix it into a song, poem, play or game.

I am sure there are at least a hundred other uses for Project Gutenberg’s texts. Let me know if you can think of any, and I will include them in this list.

Creative Commons: What Is It?

Edit: today (06/02/2015) I was discussing Creative Commons with some teachers who are new to it. I promised to share the article below, but realised it might need to be prefaced with a synopsis. So:

  • Creative Commons is a way to legally consume, share and remix media.
  • It provides an alternative to the usual school practice of ignoring copyright, and thus allows us to prepare our students for live outside the educational bubble.
  • It is a potent tool for enabling creativity and innovation, without needing to make everything from Scratch.
  • Some useful media for understand issues to do with copyright and its impact on creativity and innovation.

Keep reading below to learn more about CC…



I was recently looking through my archives to find a piece on Creative Commons (CC) to share with an acquaintance, and was surprised when I could not find one. Why had I not written something about one of the things I feel most passionate about? I don’t know the answer to that question, so instead of answering it, I will render it moot with this post.

I recently wrote of copyright that it is like a battle between content creators and content users, with each trying to find the best deal for themselves. The battle itself is umpired by the law, and all of these forces must constantly contend with changing technology in trying to find a balance. I believe that most current copyright laws are too strongly in favour of the creator: copyright terms are too long, fair use is not expansive enough and remix for personal use is not permitted. A common reaction to this problem is to simply work outside of the law and pirate copyrighted works. I can understand why people take this road, as it is perceived to be the only way to fight back against an unfair system. However, as a content creator myself, I cannot bring myself to simply steal the work of others.

The best solution to this problem is, as far as I can see, the one mapped out by Creative Commons, which was created by famed copyright lawyer Lawrence Lessig. The premise behind Creative Commons is to provide a simple way for content creators to control the use of their work. This is done through a simple licensing system, which uses 3 simple options to represent what can and cannot be done with a piece of work. Behind these options, which are represented by icons, sits a license which translates them into a legalese document. This means that instead of fighting against copyright law, the system works from within it. By applying a CC license to their work, creators are opting out of strictly prohibitive copyright, and empowering their audience to redistribute and reuse their work.

Whilst this might sound rather dry and abstract, it is in fact incredibly powerful and creative. Consider this example: say I am making a movie, and need some music for the soundtrack. Traditionally my options are to either break the law (pirate someone’s work) or work within it (pay a creator for their work). Usually, if I pay for someone’s work I am not even free to change it to meet my needs. With Creative Commons, however, I can use an online service, such as Jamendo to locate music whose creators have applied a CC license to it: depending on the options selected in the license, I may well be able to freely include that music into my work and make even make money from it. The effect of all of this is to reduce the barriers to the production of high quality, creative work, allowing the return to a culture that is created by individuals and not just large corporations. To me this is huge, as it allows us to express ourselves freely and thus forge a our own culture. In all of this, technology makes such creation easy, but Creative Commons provides the raw materials that make it free and legal.

As an educator, you might wonder why you should care about any of this. The reasons are simple. From a philosophical point of view, education is built on knowledge, which is created through sharing. Ergo, anything that promotes sharing is good for education. From a practical point of view, Creative Commons gives you access to literally millions of creative works, which you and your students can build on, legally, to create incredibly rich learning experiences. And finally, you can use Creative Commons to encourage your students to engage with the world around them by contributing their own creativity. A lot of people do not feel that their creations are worth sharing, but the truth is that you never know how other people might use your work to express themselves. Once you realise the true worth of your work within such an open system, the urge to share and connect is hard to resist.

Hopefully this post has given you an insight into what Creative Commons is all about, and perhaps even why it is something you might want to try. I am currently working on a follow-up which will contain far more practical detail on how you can use Creative Commons to enrich your teaching practice. In the meantime, the two following videos might help to shed more light on the beauty of CC:

A Shared Culture

(Original work, CC BY-NC-SA)

Building On The Past

(Original work, CC BY-NC)

Thoughts on Technology

As I develop as a teacher, I am constantly wrestling with ideas relating of technology, such as “what is technology?”, “is technology doing us any good?” and “how should we teach with and about technology?”. Here are some of my recent thoughts.

In 1980 Alan Kay (of Xerox PARC fame) said “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born”, which neatly sums up one of our interesting, common traits as human beings: we are so good at adapting to change, that we don’t realise things have not always been as they are now. We take the level of technology at our birth as a baseline, a given, and only really consider new developments as anything special. As an ICT teacher I am particularly prone to doing this: I assume that technology=computer, when in fact almost everything we engage with every day represents technology (think clothes, paper, pencils, tarmac, cement, wheels). I am sure almost all school children do exactly the same thing.

Yesterday my wife showed me the following statement on the Candlebark School technology page:

It is important for us to remain in control of our own lives. But at the same time it’s good to look forwards, to investigate new technologies, to evaluate whether they will enhance our society. Teaching technology is not just about teaching the use of computers. It is also about microwaves, vacuum cleaners, bicycles, gameboys, chainsaws, telephones and cars.

But it is also about values.

We want students who leave here at the end of their secondary education to be able to ride bicycles and motorbikes, maintain and service bicycles and cars, use a vacuum cleaner effectively, shop for, prepare, cook, serve, and clear up after quite sophisticated meals, use a computer to do research on the internet or word processing or play games, maintain and operate chainsaws and lawnmowers, burn a DVD or download music from the net, use a sewing machine and a washing machine, use pumps and whipper snippers…

Students should be comfortable and confident with technology, but able to tell the difference, in terms of values and moral worth, between an automatic climate-control device for propagating seedlings, and a battery powered tooth flosser.

To me, this sums up an elegant, sensible and complete approach to technology in education, and it has given me much food for thought. As we move more and more to knowledge-based work, it is vital that we do not forget the many layers of technology that allow us to engage in worldwide, lightening-quick electronic communication and information manipulation. I think it is vital for students to be hands on, in terms of making, taking apart and tinkering with all sorts of technological hardware. As noted by Gever Tulley and his Tinkering School this kind of activity (and especially the “dangerous” stuff) has many educational benefits, such as improved confidence, common sense and risk assessment.

Next I need to start thinking how I can can turn my evolving vision into classroom practice.