Defeating Assumptions of Limitation in our Teaching Practice

This article originally appears in Deakin University’s ‘Ringwood Alliance Bulletin’

Somewhere along the line of the last 10 years we managed to live through the biggest technological revolution in human history, without allowing it to have any meaningful impact on our capacity to teach students literacy and numeracy skills.

This year, average device numbers in Victorian government schools rose to better than 1:2 in both Primary and Secondary schools. On average, we have a device for almost every student. We also have more educational resources at our disposal online than we ever have before. How can it be then, that NAPLAN results show our literacy and numeracy levels haven’t shifted?

The recent Grattan Institute report into education, Targeted Teaching: How better use of data can improve student learning, is well worth reading. It quotes from research that shows that in any given year level there is a 5-6 year difference between the most advanced and the least advanced 10% of students. Recent research in Victoria and Tasmania showed that this can extend to as much as 8 year levels by the time students reach early secondary school. So in effect, student abilities in any given subject are only very loosely related to their Grade or Year level.

So why do schools largely still teach content by year level?

My father, teaching in the second half of last century, taught the Year 8 Maths curriculum to every child in Year 8 (and Year 9 to Year 9 and so on). Even if he had wanted to do differently, there was only one teacher, one blackboard, and 30+ students all with the same Year 8 textbook in the room – things were pretty much locked in for him.

Why do we still assume the same limitations that my father’s generation had? As mentioned above, practically every student now has their own device and access to millions of educational resources that could teach them literally anything they could possibly want to know. Yet we still largely teach Year 8 Maths to every Year 8 student.

The Grattan report recommends ‘targeted teaching’ as the only way to meet the diverse learning needs of each grade of students. Targeted teaching involves gaining quality data about where students are at in their learning for each specific unit (for example, a Fractions unit in Maths), and then targeting your planning and teaching to meet these students with what they are ready to learn next.

If we take this to its logical conclusion, we would be planning for up to an 8-year spread of learning needs in each class. A Year 8 teacher planning their Fractions unit for example, would need to cater for students at a Grade 4 level at one end, and a Year 11 or 12 level at the other. How can a teacher possibly do that? My Dad’s generation wouldn’t have been able to, but we can.

The answer is for teachers to get rid of the notion that they are the only teacher in their room. They’re not. They’re not even the best teacher in that room! The teaching challenge in 2015 is to connect each student with the best ‘teacher’ in each moment. Or looked at in another way, to narrow the gap between each student’s readiness and desire to learn a skill or concept and the means by which they can learn it. Remember, we have all the best learning resources in the world at our disposal.

So how can we get to a point of being able to connect each student with the best resources, both digital and otherwise, to teach them what they need to or are ready to learn in each moment? The answer is team collaboration and curation.

Teachers have to work as a team to plan units of work. No teacher can differentiate 6-8 ways in every unit of work. There is simply too much content to properly get their head around. Once your teaching team is working together, they then can begin to curate resources that target where each group of students is at in their learning journey. To curate is to find and bring together all the best and most relevant resources that will help students master a certain skill or learn a certain concept. But curation isn’t just digital filing. When you curate, you add meaning to the things you have collected. A bit like how museum curators use artefacts to communicate a story of a moment in history to the visitors of that museum. You are collecting resources and making clear what they are and why they have been collected there in order to assist students to learn. These resources may be apps, videos, presentations, diagrams, graphs, worksheets, suggestions of experts to interview, or descriptions of physical games, challenges and activities. They are diverse, multi-modal and chosen for your school’s students.

These curated resources replace your old textbooks or year level based work sheets. And once the heavy lifting is done in the first year, the years after that are about refining and improving the learning journeys you are providing your students with. Once trust is adequately built among your team of teachers, you can even begin to organise the flexible grouping of students around what they need to learn, rather than sticking to their traditional grade groups. All students on the learning journey called ‘equivalent fractions’ go to this room with this teacher and so on.

And if this all sounds too hard or too far-fetched, the good news is it is already happening. And you’re welcome to come and see a version of it at Kalinda at any time!

Best Practice Teacher 2015: Relational expert, master curator

It’s an indictment on our profession that we have failed to leverage some of the greatest technological advancements in human history to improve the literacy and numeracy education of our children. Large western nations like the U.K., U.S. and Australia are all battling falling literacy and numeracy standards, even as the number of digital devices in classrooms grows and grows. How should we be leveraging this technology, while also heeding the research that shows the teacher in the room is still the most important factor in a student’s success or otherwise?

Over the last few years at Kalinda we’ve been taking the (as far as I’m aware) unprecedented step of building and publishing our curriculum and associated resources online using Google Sites. This allows us to be able to personalise and differentiate the curriculum to an extent that’s never been achieved before.

Let me give you a quick example. Take the Maths concept of fractions. Our teachers have developed a Fractions Google Site. They have mapped each major stage of understanding/skill development as set out in the Australian Curriculum, and each page of the site matches these. On each page they have curated all the best resources they can find on the internet to teach these concept/skills to our specific group of students. The end result is that you have a site that represents the entire continuum of fractions learning, from about a Grade 1 to Year 8 level. Each page has videos, interactives, slide shows, text explanations and related worksheets. The best of the internet packaged up specifically for our students.

When we teach a unit, lets keep the example of fractions, we pre-test our students to see where their understandings sit. They can then reference our fractions site at their point of need, and with teacher support work their way through. In fact, in our large open plan learning spaces, there are specific teachers and spaces that represent each stage of the fractions journey and so each page of the site. The students move to that specific teacher as they reach that point of need. And by Year 5 & 6, this happens for almost our entire curriculum. There has been an exceptional amount of work by our teachers to achieve this. Imagine building a site like this for every concept you teach, not just in Maths, but for reading, grammar, spelling etc.

So you may ask: aren’t there commercial resources already built that do the same thing. Even for free? Why not just sign the kids up to Kahn Academy for example?

I have considered that question carefully as this project has taken off at my school in recent times, and the answer cuts to the heart of the issue of the role of the teacher in the modern classroom.

I see the above question as connected to the ongoing issue about a teacher’s relevancy in the 21st century, which goes something like this: in an age where there is no longer a gap between the student’s desire to learning something and the means by which they can learn it, what role is there left for a teacher? Or put more specifically for the above example, if Kahn Academy can teach every concept there is to learn in Maths, why do we need the traditional classroom with a teacher running the show?

The answer is actually simple.

At a conference recently the presenter asked a group of Secondary Maths teachers who was using Kahn Academy. Only one put their hand up. After being admonished by the presenter, as if this was something to be embarrassed about, one teacher spoke up and said ‘The kids don’t like it. They don’t relate well to it. They prefer if I explain things to them’. Now you could argue that there are some deeper issues at play here, but the central concept that this comment got me thinking about was the role of the teacher in a world where resources like Kahn Academy exist.

The biggest and most obvious thing that a human can do that technology can’t is relate to other humans. A huge part of teaching for as long as anybody can remember has been the relational aspect. Regardless of pedagogy, good teachers have been those that have meaningful relationships with their students. I’ve always thought a ‘really good’ teacher can get almost any pedagogy to work, because their students love them and really want to follow them wherever it is that they will lead. Great teachers have always been really good at relating the curriculum to their students. They establish that initial desire to learn, then they link the student to materials appropriate to them so they can learn it.

This is where technology comes in, because we can now amplify the possibilities of this model enormously. That teacher no longer has to personally instruct each of those students. Or put the other way, each of those students doesn’t have to be held back waiting for the teacher to finally help them with a problem, or even to run a lesson that addresses their particular learning needs. No longer do we have to have classes aimed at the middle, with advanced kids getting bored and struggling kids getting confused. 

The teacher should now instead be the master curator -connecting students with information, resources and tools that are on the web that best suit them. A combination of things that can only be put together by a teacher that knows their students well. This curation of content will look different in every school and vastly different from suburb to suburb, town to country as each teacher strives to curate resources that will relate concepts in the best possible way to their group of students. Content that matches their interests, their sense of humour, their stage in their learning. Content that is perhaps partially curated or even created by their own students. And most importantly, content that is differentiated specifically to match where each child is at in their learning journey for each concept you are ‘teaching’ (or ‘facilitating the learning of’?).

The best practice teacher in 2015 and beyond: relational expert, master curator.

It’s time to kill off ‘e-learning’ & ‘21st century skills’

There are two separate conversations about what should happen in education at the moment, and both are doomed unless we connect them as soon as possible.

Many in my online network of educators, and the broader ‘ed-tech world’, have been complaining loudly over the last few years at the rise of standardised testing and accountability to what they would label ‘20th century skills’.  This increased focus and accountability on ‘20th century skills’ seems to cut directly against everything they are trying to achieve in education. They wage covert wars against school management to almost secretly be using digital tools more, or having inquiry projects or genius hours or whatever it is that they feel builds the skills and understandings they believe kids need, that is, the ‘21st century’ type. Their mentality can often be one of fighting against the system, an ‘us against them’ approach. The more extreme in my network put student agency at such a high value that they promote constructivism almost exclusively, and degrade any value of set curriculum content, wanting to focus solely on a skill set in preparing kids for the modern world.

On the other side, the politicians and people at a curriculum and assessment writing level are frustrated by the simple lack of ability for teachers to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills, particularly in Primary schools. It seems to them that teachers don’t know how to teach spelling or basic numeracy understandings. They are saying, stop ‘innovating’ and doing ‘fluffy’ inquiry or technology things and get back to explicit teaching of what our kids need in order to read, write and be numerate.

 So who will win out? After more than a decade in the industry, my conclusion is this: as difficult as it may seem, it is in all our best interests to bring these two sides of the education world together, not in a way that finds compromises to both in order to achieve some sort of agreement, but in what might be called a third way. A new way of seeing our education system that does away with this polarity altogether. Or, perhaps its an old way. Remember 15 years ago when we all just talked together about best practice teaching and learning – before ‘e-learning’ divided us all?

Here we go, another ‘we need to re-think education talk’ I hear you saying. But what I’m arguing is different to the ‘scrap all the old school ideas and start again’ mantra of so many celebrity ed-tech evangelists.

 What I am saying is that we need to see that both sides of this education debate are right and need to be listened to.

You can’t build digital literacy without ‘traditional’ literacy skills. And a student is not literate in 2014 if you limit that literacy to only paper and pen. One thing needs the other.

The longer we talk about things like ‘e-learning’ as separate to learning, or ‘21st century skills’ as opposed to ‘20th century skills’, the longer we’ll be polarising the debate, separating the experts, and delaying meaningful and effective change in our schools.

Lets cut all the ‘us vs them’, ‘20th vs 21st century’ and ‘how terrible is our education system’ talk. We need to move towards a place where we simply recognise what skills and understandings are important for our children to have right now in our society and in the foreseeable future and plan our school programs around them. Clearly that will includes both traditional forms of literacy and numeracy AND newer ideas of digital literacy, citizenship, coding etc, as well as creativity, collaboration, ‘learning how to learn’ etc. It is also bound to include constructivist approaches to learning, such as play based and inquiry learning, as well as explicit teaching and (shock horror) even rote learning (its how I remembered how to spell most of these words for example). All of these approaches are proven to be successful and are appropriate in particular contexts.

There is no use waging a war against standardised testing such as NAPLAN. The simple fact is, you need to be teaching your kids to read and write, and as a society we need some way to measure how well we are achieving this. Students still need traditional literacy skills as a foundation for everything else. Similarly, saying there should be no content in a curriculum, or no explicit teaching, is crazy. “Direct instruction and formal curriculum content are pointless and kids can teach themselves everything they need to know.” These statements are just not true. Particularly for my 6 year old, who really needs someone that will help him learn how to read, and write and be numerate, and to begin to understand the world and his place in it…just like every other 6 year old for the last 100+ years.

Its just as crazy to argue that in order to do these things better we should be leaving aside using digital tools or engaging in pedagogies such as inquiry learning to build the skills that are often given the ‘21st century’ badge.

Kids need both! We need to get these two sides of the argument together and stop the needless polarity.

So how do we do this?

The first step is in the language we use. Language is a key factor in how people think about something, and goes a long way to forming their beliefs about it. The language we use frames how we see the world.

I’ve long been arguing against terms such as ‘e-learning’ (hence the name of this blog!). Learning is learning. We don’t differentiate every other type of learning with titles. There is not ‘pen learning’, or ‘pencil learning’. Neither should there be ‘e-learning’.  These terms were coined at a time when we were trying to get computers in education ‘off the ground’ and accepted into schools. They were new and special and different and we needed special ways to refer to what they could do for us. That time has well and truly past. These terms are no longer helpful.

Terms such as ‘e-learning’ are nonsense terms that actually highlight the fact that your school doesn’t incorporate technology well at all, even though they are intended to communicate the exact opposite. If you did incorporate technology seamlessly in your teaching and learning, you wouldn’t need a term for it. Its just part of what you do. It’s just learning.

Similarly, differentiating ‘21st century skills’ from others has become more damaging to the cause than helpful. It’s a polarising term that almost condescends to those in management or government positions that are pushing the importance of traditional literacy and numeracy skills. And like ‘e-learning’, it exposes the fact that we still don’t get that ‘21st century skills’ aren’t special or different (most of them were just as valuable in the 20th century), they’re on level with all the other skills that our students need.

It’s a long and difficult road to building better education systems and meet the needs of our current generation of students. And we can only get there by seeing each side of the current polar arguments and realising that we need to work together to move forward.

Which digital device is best for education?

There has never been a bigger choice for teachers and students when it comes to digital devices to support learning. When I started in education just over a decade ago you were a Mac school or a PC school. Being a Mac school was quite radical, and it was almost impossible to find a tech that knew anything about them (some may say nothing has changed!).

Now having Macs is no big deal. In fact, OSX, the Mac operating system, sits alongside Windows as the two ‘old school’ systems that have now been around much longer than any of your students have been alive. They have been joined by a myriad of other devices and operating systems that are clamouring for the education market.

5 years ago it was all about netbooks. 3 years ago iPads made netbooks look positively prehistoric almost overnight. Now Google has got into the game with Android tablets and Chromebooks and everybody is more confused than ever.

The main thing I want to say here is: the more the merrier. The more different devices there are the more choices people have. More choices means you are more likely to find a combination of devices that suits your teaching, and also that suits your students’ learning.

Don’t waste your time being loyal to Apple or Google or any particular brand or product. The only mistake you can make is believing that one device can be chosen that will be the everything you need. It’s absurd to decide you are ‘an iPad school’ or a ‘Chromebook school’. Why? Because you immediately deny your students access to amazing learning opportunities afforded by the devices you’ve locked out.

Not all devices are equal, and no one device does everything. Currently Microsoft’s strategy seems to be to sell educators the exact opposite message. They are making schools everywhere believe that their laptop/tablet hybrids running Windows 8 or 8.1 give you the best of everything. “Can’t decide between a tablet and a laptop? Look, our products are both in 1!” This marketing is misleading schools into running 1:1 programs with second rate machines based on a mistaken premise. I believe tablets and laptops have shown themselves to be 2 different things, and they work best when the designers of both their software and hardware have built them specifically for one role or the other. Trying to get one device that ‘does everything’ inevitably leads to purchasing a device that doesn’t do anything very well.

This isn’t to say you can’t run a specific 1:1 program. We have a 1:1 iPad program at my school for example. However, we also provide our students access to laptops and Chromebooks.

What follows is my brief summation of the most popular types of devices in education and why you should have them somewhere in your school.

Best_tabletsTablets (iPad, Galaxy, Nexus etc – iOS or Android)

Why are tablets so good? Because they’re a multi-media production studio in the hands of every child. Because they facilitate the production of wonderful, simple, highly creative apps that are incredibly simple to use. Because they are highly portable, have long battery lives, and can be brought to where the learning is happening rather than the other way around. Doing a science experiment on the oval? Why wouldn’t you have students take photos and video of it, annotate them with audio narration and text, put them into a document, presentation or short film, and present them when they get back to class. All on one device. You can’t do that with a laptop or Chromebook.  We used to spend half a year making short films with students when I first started teaching. Now they can be created in one session.

There has never been such a flexible device available to educators than the tablet. It has enabled technology to ‘get out of the way’ and learning to once again be the focus. Show your learning in the way you choose: comic, movie, photos, mindmap. Whatever suits your mood or your learning style.

Best of all, tablets don’t have screens that come up in front of students’ faces. They are a great social/collaborative device, and in a well run classroom they can seem to be almost ‘invisible’.

Nothing gets my goat more than the ‘tablets aren’t creative devices’ argument. What absolute crap. Tablets, in my opinion, are THE MOST creative devices we’ve ever had access to.

devices-selector-home_150Google Chromebooks

Chromebooks represent everything we should be moving towards in our schools. All you need is an internet connection and a decent browser and almost everything you could wish to achieve is there for you. Get rid of Microsoft Office. Get rid of that painful school ‘intranet’. Get rid of standard ‘images’ for your machines that only your tech can install and manage. In fact, get rid of pretty much everything else that pre-dates cloud computing; and get moving towards kids being able to achieve everything they need to achieve just by being hooked up to your WiFi.

Why have Chromebooks? Because the vast majority of what students need to do at school on a laptop is in an internet browser, especially when you’ve embraced the wonderful world of Google Apps for Education. So why are you still paying for everything else on a laptop?? The Chromebook gives you this internet browser, with a super fast flash drive and none of the other rubbish you never use that slows a computer down, for around $300. A Windows laptop is at least twice that much. A Macbook Air boasts a flash drive and is super sexy, but is more than three times that price. Can you still justify this expense large scale?

I would never work without a Macbook day to day, but don’t kid yourself: more than 9 times out of 10 your students don’t need any of the features that would separate a Mac from a Chromebook.

Laptops (Mac OS or Windows)


If you’re doing ‘proper’ graphic design or film making, teaching kids to code, or using specialised software of any sort, there’s no substitute for a laptop. No matter how you try and frame it, Chromebooks and tablets can’t and aren’t meant to completely replace the laptop computer. You need some, but possibly not a lot, particularly in a Primary school. I see laptops a bit like trucks and tablets and Chromebooks like cars or motorbikes. Once you have a tablet or a Chromebook, you’re going to prefer it as an everyday machine. As soon as you need to do some ‘heavy lifting’ however, you’re going to need a truck!

Desktop computers (Mac OS or Windows) and Netbooks (Windows)

Get rid of them!

  – What do you think? Have I been too blunt or unfair? Have you in fact found a device that ‘does everything’? Let me know in the comments.

Digital Search: are you explicitly teaching it?

One of the things still not adequately covered in our curriculum documents, at least here in Australia, is skills associated with searching for information digitally. Teachers and curriculum writers almost seem to treat search skills and the understandings associated with ‘smart’ searching as assumed. This is a touch ironic, because in my experience many teachers don’t have advanced skills or understandings around digital search themselves (as I touched on a bit in my last post).

It is an indictment on our education systems that in 2013, these crucial skills are left to companies like Google to develop education packages for. Luck they do a fairly good job of it! (see here for Google’s great ‘Search Education’ resources).

The fact remains that there is no official guide for teachers for what skills to teach and when to teach them when it comes to digital search. (The closest we come in Australia is the Australian Curriculum General Capabilities document, yet to be formally accepted by many states)

So I’ve made one.

Digital Search Progression of Skills is a document I have written to attempt to define explicit teaching guidelines for both whole class and small group/individual students in a Primary School, as well as defining what may be reasonable to expect students to achieve at each ‘stage’ in their learning. I haven’t put grade levels on this document, as students develop at different rates. Also, students in a school that explicitly teach digital search from the students’ first year will have students with skills far more advanced than schools that don’t explicitly teach it, or treat it as a bit of an after thought.

Have a look and let me know what you think. It is certainly a working document. I don’t mind you using it at your own school, but please contact me to let me know that you are.

Search Smart – 5 fast ways to locate appropriate websites for your students

At school our big focus on CBL and Inquiry Based Learning has led to conversations around how to scaffold and teach students skills  relating to researching on the web. It’s my opinion that Primary School students should not be left to do open searches Google – there is simply too much information to sort through. (This doesn’t mean we don’t teach them how and give them opportunities to practise, it just means we don’t set them Challenges and let them ‘go for it’ on the open web) Instead, teachers need to find relevant websites for students to search for information from, and post them on their class Site or Blog. This limits the amount of information students need to search through, and guides their searches to appropriate websites for their reading level etc.

This then leads to the issue of how much time it takes for teachers to collate and curate information for different groups of students in their class, as it is sometimes difficult to find informative sites at their reading level and relevant to the inquiry they are engaging in. I have found that teachers are often as ignorant as students in knowing how to search in a smart way for the type of sites they want. (This has led to some PD on how to teach search skills, or Information Literacy. A blog post on this is to come!) That’s why I produced the following guide for our staff:

5 Fast Ways to Find Appropriate Websites

1. Use Google filters

After you do a search in Google, on the results page select from the filters to narrow your search. Select ‘Search Tools’ and ‘Reading Level’ to sort websites by reading level. Select the specific types of media you want to search: videos, images, scholarly articles, news, blogs, apps etc.

2. Benefit from the work of other teachers by searching collections of education resources, rather than the open web.

3. Google isn’t the only search engine!

Use one of the many dedicated ‘kids’ search engines instead. This article will explain the reason for them and give you the top 3:

4. Search education sections of relevant agencies/organisations

5. Live like its the 21st century – leverage the power of social networking

  • Diigo – a social bookmarking site. Store your bookmarks online and see everyone elses as well. Join communities around particular topics. Search what other people have already found to be useful and bookmarked rather than the open web.

  • Twitter, Google+, Pinterest – All searchable by hashtags. Bring a world of information to you from some of the best educators on the planet. Join some communities on Google+ and watch your education knowledge explode.

  • There are sharing networks for resources around particular products, such as iPads and even IWBs, such as Promethean Planet

Reflections from Google Teacher Academy (or how I plan to further ‘Googlify’ my school!)

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of attending the latest Google Teacher Academy at Google HQ in Sydney. It was a fantastic experience. 51 amazing educators from 14 different countries in the same room. Each one of them I imagine would rarely be in the same room with someone else as competent as they are in using digital tools in the classroom, now in a great big room with at least 50 others of type.

We learnt lots and lots about some of the newer or more recently updated Google tools (You Tube editor, Google Maps Engine, Google Art Project) and were privileged with inside information about the future directions of Google’s main suite of apps (Docs, Sheets etc).

What I valued most of all though, what a sneak peek inside one of the most successful companies on earth. I greatly valued the talk that Suan Yeo, the man in charge of Education Sales for Google in the Asia Pacific region, gave in relation to the ‘Google Culture’.

I also greatly valued getting a tour around the offices of Google. As most know, these are not just any offices, and the lessons learnt just by wandering around with our tour guide, who worked there, were great.

So here are some of my take aways, from a school management perspective:


Google has every different type of workspace you can imagine. Big and open. Small and closed. Light or dark, relaxed or formal. From wide open social spaces to literally holes in the wall you could crawl into. In education speak, we would say they have catered for every different possible learning style. Our tour guide told us that the workspaces were continuously being reviewed. If something wasn’t working it was changed. All the walls were moveable, and things could, and were, adjusted as necessary.

What a wonderful correlation to our classrooms. Google did not accept that the practices of their workers have to fit around the furniture and the office layout. Instead it was the other way around. The office layout can change according to need. And the variety of spaces allows for every different preference a worker might have.

I’ve long argued for entirely portable classrooms. Get rid of the front of the room. Have open spaces separated by moveable separators. Move your tables and chairs as needed. Fit your classroom around the learning that needs to take place, not the other way around.

Creativity doesn’t happen at a desk

We all know this. But designing your office block (or classroom) to truly represent this truth is something else. Google understands that just because you’re sitting at your desk, it doesn’t mean you are being productive. There are lots of different rooms, from quiet libraries to fun games rooms, where employees can go to ‘clear their head’ and let the creativity happen. If you’re stuck on a problem you are encouraged to go for a walk, get something to eat, play some pinball or playstation, and let the solution come.

Team Work

Everyone works as a part of a team at Google. There is simply no other way. Ideas are developed collaboratively. Problems are solved as a team.

As Michael Jordan said: there is no ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘I’ in ‘win’. This means that although you work collaboratively, it is still everyone’s responsibility to step up when it counts. Everybody is a somebody who can and should take action. And a team requires each individual to put in in order to achieve greatness.

This confirmed to me that we are doing good things with our Challenge Based Learning at Kalinda, where students work as part of a team to solve real problems or make real improvements – just like the teams at Google do. They are challenged to work collaboratively, but at the same time asked to reflect on their effectiveness as a part of their team.

Share Early and Fail Fast

When working on a project, you share it with someone as early as possible in order to receive feedback from them. This leads to the concept of ‘fail fast’. That person might pick out 5 ways your product can be improved. In other words, you failed to get it right. That’s a good thing. You need to fail lots and keep getting that feedback in order to build an end product that is truly great. Prototyping is key.

This is a huge lesson for our students and the way they are encouraged to work by our teachers. Traditionally, students were often expected to go and work hard on their projects over a number of weeks, handing them in right at the end of the unit for a teacher to mark. This is a completely flawed approach. In our Challenge Based work, which has also been influenced by the Design Thinking approach, students are asked to build up a solution to a problem as part of a team. They need to actively seek feedback about their proposal early on in the process and make adjustments accordingly. I now want to go further with the kids, and build in them the mindset of seeking out feedback from both teachers and peers. Take the fear of failure out of the equation by meeting it head on and welcoming it. Fail fast. Prototype your product or solution until it is better than it could ever have been had you not sought feedback from your teacher and your peers.

The Famous Google 20%

Lots has been written about this already. The famous working conditions at Google that say 20% of a worker’s time can be spent on their own projects. These are projects that might improve the company in some way. They may even be products that end up getting used by Google and becoming famous in the process. Google Now is one of these such projects which is just starting to hit the ‘big time’.

It got me thinking, imagine putting a philosophy like this in place in my school? Obviously we don’t have budget to give over 20% of a teacher’s time each week to their own ‘projects’, but is there maybe some sort of time each week we can dedicate to this sort of idea? As an Assistant Principal, the idea of each person in our school spending part of their time each week on projects that would improve our school is exciting. Of course many teachers do this sort of thing anyway, but it’s the teachers that are trapped in that cynical ‘victim’ mentality that this could really be powerful with. Instead of complaining about things, the 20% encourages a change of mindset to one that actively looks for ways your workplace can be positively improved.

Focus on the User

Finally, what is perhaps most obvious and also most often forgotten in schools and any other business. ‘Focus on the user’ is the first and, one assumes, the most important in a list of Google ‘Innovation Principals’. For schools, ‘focus on the learner’ would be a guiding principle that should see you developing the best possible programs at every turn. How could you not offer an engaging program if you are focussed on the learner? How could you not be interested in what your students know, and then specifically design and differentiate your program to meed their needs, if you were focused on the learner?

Like much of what Google does, its almost obvious once you see it being done. The challenge is in actually making it happen.


Should teachers have to pay for the technology they use?

It was reported today that the Australian Education Union in Victoria is taking the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) to court over the requirement of Victorian teachers to lease a laptop for school use.  Jewel Topsfield from The Age reported:

A highly contentious requirement that teachers at state schools fork out for their work laptops – even though they are essential for them to perform their duties – is being challenged in the Federal Court.The Australian Education Union is suing the Victorian Education Department, claiming it has contravened the Fair Work Act by deducting hundreds of dollars from teachers’ pay if they chose to lease a notebook computer from the department.

(Read more:

A Brief History of the Issue

This issue first blew up 2 years ago, when the DEECD in Victoria stopped subsidizing the lease they offered to teachers. Teachers in Victoria are required to use a leased computer, being restricted from bringing their own to work due to software licensing agreements and the contractual definitions of the technical support supplied to schools.

When the lease program first started, it offered teachers a new model Windows notebook for a minimal price (around $4.00 a fortnight). Macbooks were offered as well, at just under double that price, but still heavily subsidized. As technology evolved and diversified, unfortunately the lease offers didn’t. To make matters worse, DEECD abolished any subsidization of the program. This left teachers with the full cost of a lease where they had very little choice of their device (other than Mac vs PC), and no choice over the length of lease.

For PC users, DEECD offeres the contract to supply the Windows notebooks for the lease program basically to the lowest bidder, and as a result Lenovo has supplied, what, in my opinion, have been some very ordinary models up to teachers (the edition running Windows Vista was a particular shocker, although Microsoft is as much to blame as Lenovo for that 3 years of leasing hell).

Not being able to enter into any bargaining agreement with Apple, the white Macbook being offered jumped in price from $7.50 to $11.50 after subsidization stopped. It also went from a 3 year lease to a 4 year lease. Making matters worse, it was the old white Macbook model, already scrapped by Apple and unavailable in stores. (This year, teachers will be offered last year’s Macbook Pro model, also at the end of its production life, at a cost to teachers of $17 a fortnight over 4 years.)

When I reported on this on my blog (see my original post on the issue: The Victorian Teacher Notebook Scandal) the story went viral on social media and was widely reported in the mainstream media as well. It seemed for the first time Victorian teachers were awakened to the injustice of being forced into a less than satisfactory agreement that was costing them a significant amount of money for a tool that they couldn’t do their job without.

What is the state of play outside of Victorian state schools?

Conditions for teachers vary greatly in this reagard in Australia. While some states have leasing schemes similar to Victoria’s, others have nothing at all. In some states and territories, if teachers don’t buy a laptop privately then they don’t have one to use, which makes encouraging appropriate technology use by teachers a nightmare for some schools. Many Catholic and independent schools provide laptops for their teachers. Some even provide a laptop and an iPad.

What about tablets?

This leads us to a further complication of this issue: the advent of tablet technology. In my opinion, the iPad (or Android tablet if you like) is essential and perhaps the most important tool a teacher can have. I’ve explained that in other previous posts, see in particular Evernote – an attempt at the definitive summary of teacher uses! and a pre-iPad post: iPhone: the Teacher’s Best Friend.

One of the first things I did as an Assistant Principal was provide an iPad for all of our staff. This means they all have a laptop which they pay for through the DEECD lease, and a ‘free’ iPad that remains the property of the school but is essentially theirs for personal use. At a school down the road, staff must pay another lease to get an iPad on top of their notebook lease. At many other schools, staff simply have to buy their own if they want one.

So what should we be expecting here? What digital tools, if any, should teachers get provided with to do their job?

I don’t believe its fair for teachers to have to cover the full cost of any tools that are absolute necessities for their job. Having said that, I don’t necessarily believe the best use of limited State money is to cover the full cost of notebooks and tablets for all teachers.

My opinion is that we need to look at this with a much broader and more modern perspective. When my blog post was published in 2011, much of the comments and commentary in the media turned into a Mac vs PC debate. Comments such as: “Teachers should just be happy with the $4 per fortnight PC and stop complaining. Why do they need a Mac anyway?” abounded. It should be obvious to all by now the ‘Mac vs PC’ debate is absolutely absurd and an unhelpful distraction. There are a multitude of devices now on the market that serve many different preferences and needs.

So the first thing to think about in answering the question of what teachers should be provided with is that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to technology of the past is long out-dated.

The next thing holding us back from answering this question properly is the attitude of many IT technicians that only certain devices should be allowed onto their ‘secure’ school networks. Everything is locked down and secured so tightly in a government school that typically only one device with one set of software is allowed for teachers. (at a real stretch and with lots of angst your average school tech will allow a Mac!) Besides the fact that this in itself is an insane approach to supporting a place that should be geared towards education and creativity, aren’t we past the local network age yet?

As a Google Apps school, I had to really think this year about whether we even needed the department image or school network for any of our devices. Almost everything we use is web based. We even have printers now that don’t require more than a WiFi connection. Shouldn’t we be aiming for school environments where you bring your device of choice and all it needs to be able to do is connect to the school WiFi? Couldn’t we use cloud based methods of putting any essential non-web based software onto our machines? Better still, couldn’t we use cloud based virtualization software to run apps on our machines when we need them, rather than having to store them on our hardrive and necessitate the running of Windows or Internet Explorer? In this way, any device could be used and run any software needed virtually.

With these things considered, wouldn’t the modern way to approach all of this be to provide teachers with a certain dollar amount that would subsidize the device/s that best suit the specific needs they have that may be school or subject specific?

If this sounds crazy, consider that there are companies that are already doing this. I spoke to a Cisco employee last year, who told me that he gets a certain amount from his employer, with which he can buy any device or combination of devices he likes that will effectively support the particular job he does for the company. He chose 2 devices with the money provided: a Macbook Air and an iPad. Any Windows specific software the company had could run on his Mac via cloud based virtulization software.

Now, obviously we’re not realistically going to have the same budget to work with in state school education compared to a multinational company, but the same concept can still work.

The point is, even if DEECD backs down in Victoria and provides all teachers with a certain notebook, we should still consider ‘one device for all’ the wrong path to go down.

It’s not appropriate for all teachers to be using a Lenovo laptop. Most teachers doing their job well should need a combination of devices. A PC netbook and an iPad. A Chromebook and an Android tablet. A Macbook and an Windows 8 tablet.

Whatever the devices, surely what works best for teachers within their specific environment to provide the best education posible is what’s important and what we should be aiming for.

I’m certain that rather than receiving a $500 notebook, many teachers would prefer to be given that $500 in one form or another every 3 – 4 years to subsidize the devices of their choice. We would need to put some sort of requirements on those devices to ensure money isn’t wasted and the devices chosen can do the job. A similar system of minimum requirements exists in most BYOD schools for students bringing their own tech. Why can’t it work for teachers?

What do you think? What agreement should exist for teachers in regards to providing the technology that is essential in their jobs?

A follow up on teaching ‘the HOW’ of an activity

I’ve received a fair bit of feed-back from my last post, ‘Give students the what, the why and the when – NOT the HOW‘. Most feedback was from teachers keen to trial what I’d written about in their own classrooms. Some feedback was from teachers that felt perhaps there was something important missing. And that is: don’t we need to teach students about all the different ways they could complete an activity before we open things up for them to choose how they want to respond? Isn’t it good teaching practice to explore with students what elements make a poster (for example) effective before students go about producing posters? Shouldn’t you explore what makes a good film before you let students create their own?

This is absolutely true. How can you expect students to come up with a quality end product, whatever form it takes, if you haven’t shown them how to create it in the first place?

Recently we hit this problem at school. Our Level 4s were given half a day to show what they’d learned from a special Cybersafety presentation from ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority). Most groups chose to make short films that focused on a particular element of the presentation, for example, cyber bullying.

As teachers began to view the first results from this session they weren’t overly thrilled. The students had clearly learned a whole lot from the presentation, and their ideas were great. However, their movies weren’t. Many were shot all in one, with kids acting whole scenes out in front of the camera. There was no thought given to camera angles, framing or editing. And the sound was terrible.

Have we skipped a step here? Should we have just set them the task to make a movie and then taught them the things that make a good movie good?

Well, that’s certainly the way we used to do it. And maybe at times there is still some merit in that. But what I wanted our teachers to do was to dig deeper into what was really going on here.

What did the students’ movie making skills tell us about their visual and multimedia literacy skills? Their near finished products clearly showed that they knew nothing of how a film communicates messages to an audience. This isn’t just a problem for this activity, this is a massive whole in their literacy skills.

Teachers shouldn’t be waiting for a film making activity to teach how to make a film. Likewise, you shouldn’t just be teaching about effective poster making when asking kids to make a poster.

For more than 10 years now I’ve been banging on about how our literacy texts in Primary Schools are far too narrow. We spend over 90% of our time teachings students to read from books or pieces of paper. And yet in the ‘real world’ I would estimate over 90% of the literacy they require has nothing to do with books or paper. It’s high time we broadened our everyday idea of what ‘teaching reading’ should actually mean.

We need to look at more than the written word in our literacy sessions. We need to go well beyond ‘big books’ in our shared reading. Posters, web pages, short films, advertisements should all be looked at and dissected. Students need a critical literacy of all these medias to be informed and successful in their lives.

When our students went into that session to make a short film they should have already had a background knowledge from years of literacy sessions about how films communicate to audiences. They should have known to show the ‘bully’ from a low angle which would make him or her look more menacing. They should have known to cut to a high angle shot of the victim to make them look more vulnerable and scared. They should have understood how a close up captures facial expressions. The should have put thought into a sound track that would be appropriate to the emotions they wanted to convey.

In short, if we are giving our students a proper and full literacy education, and teaching them to critically examine all types of media and how they work, then we should see the results of that come through in their work. By grade 5 and 6 they should be able to choose the ‘how’ of an activity and have the skill set to ‘pull it off’. And if they can’t, that should speak to holes in their literacy understandings that are critical for you to fill.


Give students the ‘what’, the ‘why’ and the ‘when’ – NOT the ‘how’

In my last post, I mentioned the change in pedagogy that going 1:1 with any device should demand. Too often 1:1 allows teachers to slip into the trap of every student doing the same thing at the same time in the same way. In my opinion this should probably be the most important deficiency in our teaching that 1:1 should provide the solution to.

I’m not being critical of teachers here, merely making an observation.’Whole class’ teaching is exactly how many of us have been taught to teach. Not at university, but during our teaching rounds and our first, most impressionable, years in the profession. In this post I wanted to build on a suggestion that I mentioned in my last post, which is a very quick and easy way to move away from this problem. That is, stop telling students ‘how’ to complete an activity.

Students need to know the ‘what’ of what you’re asking them to do. They definitely need to know the ‘why’ – this is the Learning Intention, the most important aspect. ie. ‘What’s the point of this?’ (teachers sometimes forget this one, but that’s a topic for another post) They also need to know the ‘when’. As in, “when is this due?” i.e. “How long have we got to complete this activity?”

But telling them the ‘how’ is stealing a lot of the thinking and the learning from them.

It is often VERY difficult to resist telling students ‘how’ to complete an activity. But since we’ve gone with 1:1 iPads at Kalinda, I’ve been surprised time and time again at what students come up with if you only leave it open for them to do so.

Simple case in point. Students today had 6 maps of Australia from different points in history. Each map showed a different moment in the development of Australia’s colonies (later states). Students were to use the maps to show what they had learned about how and when each colony or state of Australia came to be following their research about it.

If it were up to me, I probably would have planned every last bit of the activity, right down to the ‘how’. That is, I would have guided students to use a particular app, probably something like Strip Designer, to copy and import the maps into. I would have then asked them to order and label them in the app. Fortunately, the teacher delivering the lesson has been wonderful at leaving the ‘how’ open for students. He let them know the basics of what the activity was, the reason for it, and how long they had to complete the it, and then ASKED THEM what apps they might use. After getting some suggestions he set them off to work.

I watched amazed (yet again) as students came up with brilliant ways to show their learning, stuff I would never have thought of. They took the 6 maps and used them in all different ways. Some created timelines. Some used Poplet – they imported the pictures and created a mind map along with their own annotations. Some saved the maps to their iPad camera roll and used Art Set, a drawing app. They could easily import the pictures into the app from their camera roll, drag them into place anywhere on the page, and annotate or label them in any way they pleased. Some even printed the maps off and cut and pasted them into an ‘old fashioned’ timeline on a piece of paper!

Time and again this sort of thing has happened. In little ways, such as I’ve just described, right up to the really awesome ‘big’ things. Such as in our Challenge Based Learning units, where a challenge is set and the students are completely free to come up with their own solutions in their own way. Death to ‘make a powerpoint about a bushranger’  or ‘make a poster about an early explorer’ projects!!

So challenge yourself. Often the first thought when you set an activity is that students will need to be guided into exactly how to complete it. Resist this. Let students come up with something far more brilliant that you would ever set them.