Sunday, 21 December 2014

What a change can do

 Change is imminent

In 1983, The Police performed at Shae Stadium in front of a shoulder to shoulder crowd of 70,000 exhilarated fans, topping the Beatles and any other band that had ever played there.  In fact, near the end of the concert, Sting mused: "We'd like to thank the Beatles for lending us their stadium". Sting saw this concert as an Everest moment and soon began his solo career.  And the demise of one of the greatest power trios in music history had begun.

My educational Everest was sitting in my classroom alongside my principal as my grade 7 students shared with me how they had changed the world.  It was project-based learning at its core. I share about what my students accomplished here and here

Then came the change: High School. A ball had begun rolling that led me to leave the comforts of my classroom home for 7 years and move to teaching Science and Math in a digital environment at the nearby high school.

My attempt at Elephant Toothpaste
Enter the rookie. Though I had been teaching for over 20 years, I felt like I had no foundation for my new role. It wasn't simply the new routines, new grade level, new curriculum, and new colleagues. It was my lack of understanding as to what good high school teaching was. I felt I had to change to meet the new routines, grade level, curriculum and colleagues. But I had no clue how to change, what to become. What did this new Mr. Robinson look like? I had no idea. 

And the pressures came ... and I did succumb.  I have found myself worrying over the sheer mountain of content.  I have found myself racing through concepts. I have found myself focused on summative assessment.  And I have found myself covering curriculum, not making it come alive. Here is all that I could blame:

Standardized testing

In BC we have government exams in high school.  In grade 10 they are worth 20% of the mark.  Although it keeps teachers accountable to cover all topics, it also puts pressure on teachers to move briskly through the curriculum. Who would want to be the teacher being cursed by their student during the final: "but Robinson never taught us any of this!"
Student motivation

I was completely surprised by my students' attitude toward assignments.  I had an idea that motivation would be much higher in high school. Whether it was the fact that "failure" was a real possibility, or that careers were looming, or just the added maturity, I thought motivation would be something the majority of high school students would have come to terms with. Nope.  So far with my vast 3 months experience, I have noticed that my students intrinsic motivation is even less. Students who would have struggled to complete assignments in middle, continued to struggle in high school. 

Massive amount of content

Roots, radicals, trig, exponents ... Nutrient cycles, Bohr and Lewis models, ionic and covalent bonds ... DNA, codons, ribosomes ... all that is a drop in the bucket of the content and concepts I have shared in the last 3 months.  It is shocking the sheer amount that we're asking high school teachers to communicate and high school students to master.

But if there is any blame, I take it upon myself.  No one asked me to change.

I felt I had to become something I wasn't to meet the demands of testing, motivation, and content.  Instead of molding the demands, I allowed the demands to mold me.  In retrospect, I didn't have to let it happen.  I allowed it.  But I got to see the shining light of high school on the last day before Christmas vacation.

I have made many Christmas hampers over the years in my schools.  But at high school, the students not only bring the food and presents to school but can drive to drop off the boxes.  I accompanied two of my students (and it wasn't them accompanying me! I followed them to the location) who volunteered to deliver the Christmas hampers.  What a blessing it was to see students, one of which I had taught in middle school, give of their time, drive to the location, greet the hamper family, and carry in the boxes.  After the hugs, when we had all parted ways, I reflected on the great possibilities teaching at high school had to offer.

During this Christmas break I get a chance to reflect and refocus my efforts on what is important.

With 11 solo albums, all unique and yet graced with Gordon Sumner's eclectically tasteful style, Sting's choice to go solo was sound.  Who knows what Police would have looked like beyond Synchronicity, their last album as a band.  But either way, the only thing that stays the same is change.  And sometimes it is amazing what a change can do.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Projects that Change the World


I remember the day I made the switch from having my students do projects for me to having my students do projects for humanity.  When I had explained this new kind of assignment, there was an incredulous look on many of my grade sevens’ faces: “You mean we can do something, really do something?”  It was like they were just waiting for permission.  And they took that permission and ran with it to places I had not fathomed. 

(This post was originally published in the Fall 2014 Edition of Living Education eMagazine)


Intuitively it makes sense.  While we spend the 200 days together, we might as well make a difference.  We might as well move beyond what if two trains leave their stations at such and such a time and into how could we improve the transit use in our community.  We might as well shift from finding out what a wetland is to how we can save the wetlands behind the school.  This is one of the tenets of project-based learning (PBL): learning through interacting with real life, through completing real-life challenges.  But do these kinds of projects actually lead to learning?  For educators, many initiatives that seem well and good, may not be based in research.  Does educational research support PBL?

John W. Thomas, Ph.D. (2000) formerly of the Buck Institute for Education reviewed research on project-based learning using specific criteria when considering whether something was project-based learning or not.  Along with criteria such as centrality, a driving question, constructive investigations, and autonomy, he used as his plum line a level of authenticity.  His fifth criterion was as follows:

Projects are realistic, not school-like. Projects embody characteristics that give them a feeling of authenticity to students. These characteristics can include the topic, the tasks, the roles that students play, the context within which the work of the project is carried out, the collaborators who work with students on the project, the products that are produced, the audience for the project's products, or the criteria by which the products or performances are judged. Gordon (1998) makes the distinction between academic challenges, scenario challenges, and real-life challenges. PBL incorporates real-life challenges where the focus is on authentic (not simulated) problems or questions and where solutions have the potential to be implemented. (Thomas, 2000).

Here we find what I see as the crux to project-based learning: authentic problems or challenges.  While Thomas reviewed evaluative research, implementation research, and intervention research of project-based learning in his article, he also reviewed research on PBL effectiveness.  Of note was his look at Boaler’s (1997) longitudinal study of two British High Schools.  One school taught Math in a traditional way while the other school employed project-based learning.  During the periodic interviews, the “students at the project-based school regarded mathematics as a ‘dynamic, flexible subject that involved exploration and thought.’ (Boaler, 1997, p. 63)” while students at the control school reported that they found Math boring and tedious.

Although the effect on students’ perceptions of Math speak volumes to the impact of project-based learning, the students’ results on assessments seemed to follow suit.  “Students at the project-based school performed as well as or better than students at the traditional school on items that required rote knowledge of mathematical concepts, and three times as many students at the project-based school as those in the traditional school attained the highest possible grade on the national examination. Overall, significantly more students at the project-based school passed the national examination administered in year three of the study than traditional school students.” (Thomas, 2000).

More recently, Boss et al (2011), as reported in The Foundation Review, desired to create an engaging and effective AP (Advanced Placement) course for students centered on experience-based project cycles.  The researchers set up an experiment that would compare their US Government and Politics AP course containing authentic projects with a statistically matched control group.  The PBL AP students completed projects all the while keeping this fundamental question in mind: what is the proper role of government in a democracy? The researchers found that students in the PBL courses performed “as well or better than students in the traditional courses on the AP test, and better than (or in one case, the same as) students in the traditional courses on the KIA test.”  The KIA test was their Knowledge in Action test.  Essentially, the PBL students did better at applying their knowledge when given a new scenario: to create a plan for action on a controversial political issue.

The above studies support that project-based learning leads to better test results.  Moreover, Thomas (2000) cited many studies that have found other significant gains from PBL.  Shepherd (1998) found gains in critical thinking and confidence.  The Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1992) found gains in “problem-solving skills, metacognitive strategies, and attitudes towards learning.”  Tretten and Zachariou (1995) found improvement in “work habits, problem-solving capabilities, and self-esteem.”

But more telling is what the students have to say about their experience.  “Project-based learning actually helps you to apply it to life because when you read things out of a book, you kind of wonder, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ That’s a question that students ask almost every day.” (Boss et al, 2011).  One of my own students whose project led her to collect used books to send to Uganda to build portable libraries wrote: “instead of just doing one small assignment and being over with it, it seems like we get to do a project for a while and really get involved with it. We also like that with this project we got to take some action towards what we wanted to help fix, and actually get the students in the school and the people in our community involved.” (Robinson, 2014).
The possibilities are infinite.  Portland students consulted professional microbiologists to create soil bacteria information pamphlets to be distributed at local garden centers.  San Diego eleventh graders developed forensic techniques that help protect African wildlife; they shared their findings with wildlife-protection officials and even traveled to Tanzania to present bush-meat identification workshops. (Curtis, 2001).  The types of projects are limited only by the opportunities the teacher avails and the imagination the students bring.

For my own personal experience, once the paradigm shifted, the atmosphere in my classroom became more like a campaign headquarters than a classroom.  The next thing I know, we are tweeting the mayor, writing proposals, finding email addresses, advertising for a bake sale, and abiding by a group’s request to stop all screen-time for two days.” (Robinson, 2013).  Money was raised for orphanages in Ethiopia and food distributing organizations; used books were sent to Uganda; trees were planted in schools and parks nearby.

Though there are many aspects to project-based learning, I believe it is the authenticity of the projects that really set this kind of teaching apart.  Students learn the material often to a greater degree and with depth.  Work habits and attitudes toward learning improve.  Local and global needs are addressed.  Self-esteem is increased.  The learning is enjoyed.  The students win. The community wins.  Humanity wins.


Boss, S., Johanson, C., Arnold, S., Parker, W. Nguyen, D. (2011). The Quest for Deeper Learning and Engagement in Advanced High School Courses. The Foundation Review: Vol. 3: Iss. 3, Article 3

Curtis, D. (2001). Project-Based Learning: Real-World Issues Motivate Students. Retrieved August 8, 2014 from EDUTOPIA on the World Wide Web:

Robinson, S. (2013). “The Problem with Project-based Learning.” Retrieved August 8, 2014 from ON THE SIDE OF TECHNOLOGY on the World Wide Web:
Robinson, S. (2014). “Diary of some not-so-wimpy Project-based Learners.” Retrieved August 10, 2014 from MRRCLASS on the World Wide Web:

Thomas, J. (2000). A Review of Research on Project-based Learning. Retrieved August 5, 2014 from NEWTECHNETWORK.ORG on the World Wide Web:


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Cheeky Look At How Tech Affects Education

I've read several posts on the ways tech is changing education.  Here are a few:
And the list goes on.

I like how posts like these all take a different bent on the effect of tech on education.  Some look at higher learning; some look at devices; most include some part of what's commonly referred to as 21st Century skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity).  But all have a bird's eye, sitting in a comfy armchair, chin scratching and wearing a smoking jacket kind of view.  What about the educator in the trenches?  What has really changed day to day?

Not every teacher has gone "1 to 1", or done a Skype Chat, or got their students blogging. And collaboration and communication have been pillars of an educator's classroom for decades. (Remember Cooperative Learning?)

So here are my own four ways in which technology has changed education for me.

So many techniques, so little time
Educators have always felt constantly exposed to new educational techniques. Tech however has put our exposure into overdrive. Flipping, BYOT/BYOD, Project-based Learning, Inquiry: they all come at you quick, fast and in a hurry. You can Teach Like a Pirate. You can Lead From Within.  Even if you are not looking for it, someone will share with you over some kind of social media something new that they are working on.

This can be great.  Never before has the world been so small as to be able to build on ideas from around the globe.  Never has sharing been so easy--a tweet, a blog, an update away.  But without a modicum of restraint, it can be like drinking from a fire hose.  The new ideas can come so rapid-fire that there is no depth to the learning.  Patience is a virtue in this situation--a patient look at all the possibilities and patience with oneself.  There is no law against slow implementation, nor restraint.

Collaboration over sleep
If you've ever found yourself in an educational conversation with a complete stranger that extended into the wee hours of the night then you are not alone.  In fact, whether it is on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, or an Edmodo community, these kinds of conversations are commonplace.  Is this you?  You are up in the middle of the night and you grab your phone.  You open up twitter and see that Australia or some other country you could "dig to" is having a chat on something you've been thinking about.  You introduce yourself, and despite the possibility of getting a pillow thrown at you by your partner, you begin to wax on about student voice or digital citizenship.

True: the level of connectivity we have in this day is amazing.  But once again, boundaries need to be in place.  I do believe that the global connections we make are meaningful.  And it is wonderful to collaborate beyond the brick and mortar walls we find ourselves in day after day.  But mantras like: "Family over Facebook" or "Buds over blogs" are crucial to keep.  Next time a late night twitter chat catches your eye, you might want to put your phone down and catch some Zzzzs.  You know you're going to need them.

Digital dependency deepens
It used to be that your tech success was based on how old the overhead bulb was.  Now you need lab time, internet access, wifi, and multiplatform apps.  The success of your spirit assembly rests on the downloading of a certain 50 Cent YouTube video.  Your Air needs to Play; your Google needs to Play.  And perish the thought if someone contracts a virus or your school Wi-Fi is overloaded with Ultimate Fail Video downloads.  Now you have students sent to your class asking for your dongle.  And then they tell you its not the right one.

I'm not too sure a way around this one.  It seems once you leave the land of paper, you're stepping into a tech powder keg.  My tendency is to ride the wave.  Here we need a lot of grace.  Sometimes you just don't have the Prezi reader that the student needs for their presentation; sometimes the internet is down.  Try to be ready with a backup.  But don't get so down if things aren't as smooth as you like them to be.  There will just be those messy days. Typically the students don't mind a little mess here and there.

Differentiation desire
Teachers are now asking the question: how can I use technology to tailor my students' learning experiences.  Whether it comes from within or without, there is a sense that tech can help in the tailoring process.  Now you would never promote a "teaching machine" but you might ask yourself: how can tech in a way clone my efforts? How can it do what I don't have time to do?

EdTech is big business.  And there are a lot of companies out there that would be glad to help you leverage tech for your students' learning.  I would suggest doing your research before you start spending the PAC money, though.  Utilizing tech to aid in the learning process is great.  But even after you get into something, at some point take a step back.  Ask yourself:
- is the tech really helping? or is it creating more problems?
- is the learning genuine? or does it poorly generalize to other situations?
- does it support the connection with the teacher? or does it diminish the relationship with the teacher?
You might find the tech produces amazing results.  Or you might find that it is doing more harm than good.

In the movie Napoleon Dynamite, Kip loved technology.  But he loved Lafawnduh more.  If only we could keep our classroom priorities as straight as Kip's.  I leave you with his moving love ballad.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Inking: The Undiscovered Country

I have a dream.  A tech-agogy dream. (Just made that one up.  It sounds like it could be the name of a Japanese internet cafĂ©, but I'm considering it "a technology implementation that betters my pedagogy").  The dream isn't flashy.  But it is something I have longed for.

Recently, I went back and read some of my first blog posts.  I did that because I had been losing my blogging focus and I always make it a practice to start from the top and read over my work whenever I get stuck or off track.  The other reason is that I love taking a peek back to where I've been.  I do this both professionally and personally.  It is like time travelling.  I get to re-experience what fears, hopes, dreams, desires, prayers I had back then, and then get to celebrate where things have gone since.

Here is a dream I blogged on Feb. 20th, 2013 -- a year and a half ago -- in a post called: If I were a kid in my own class:

First Block: Math - Here is where paperless society meets UDL. 

I scan the QR code my teacher has on the wall as I walk into the class.  It gets me to the learning intention for the day: Adding mixed numbers.  I read the teaching notes and slip on my headphones.  There are two Youtube videos my teacher wanted me to view before I "play" with the manipulatives sitting on the table.  The teacher texts me saying that it is now time for a mini lesson at the front.  Anyone who doesn't get the lesson comes up.  I figure I know what I am doing so I start demonstrating 2 1/2 plus 3 4/6 with pattern blocks.  I take a picture of my answer.  I use the pattern blocks to try a few more questions.  I check with a student at my table if I am doing it right.  She figures I get it.  I watch her and it seems like she gets it too.  My teacher comes by and I show my pictures.  I get the nod and I move from manipulatives to models.  I "open in" the PDF set of questions in PDF Max Pro and start inking my answers with my stylus.  The teaching notes say I don't have to answer the questions by drawing just pattern block shapes.  I can use whatever shapes that I feel work.  I figure I'll draw pizza slices.  Next, I have to add mixed numbers without pictures.  There is a link for a video but after watching it, I still don't get it.  I put my name on a cue list for some help.  While I try another question, my teacher comes by: "You wanted some help?"  "Yah."  I get my questions answered and I continue on with the practice.  When I am done, I upload the PDF to the hand in box in my teacher's virtual classroom.  The teaching notes tell me which IXL sections are for homework and I work on a few questions before the bell rings for Nut. Break.

At the time all this was but a dream--a brainstorm of possibilities.  Since then, I have gotten a chance to see some of my dream come to fruition.  I have been using Edmodo to streamline workflow (I share about it here).  This allows for students (and parents) to access the teaching videos and criteria sheets I post for learning at their leisure.  It opens up the doors for students to learn in a social context. They can ask school-related or non-school related questions of their peers or myself from home.  Students can also do work on the device of their choosing and submit it.  I can annotate work electronically, giving them feedback to propel the student toward mastery.  Feedback, marks, questions, and answers are all kept in an accessible location.

I have also used QR codes to take students quickly to where I want them to go for the day.  Though, I haven't used them to bring students to a daily learning intention, the QR codes lead students to a site I want them to visit or a Today's Meet location to support leveraging the back channel. These discussions can take place while students are with me in the class or even different rooms.  The discussion can be stored for future reference and referred back to.

But I feel there is still a basic techagogy with which I haven't dealt. There is a place I want to go that isn't as snazzy as some of the places I've been but it seems to be a place I can no longer ignore: I want to find an inking workflow solution.

Now some might say that a workflow solution for inked documents doesn't lead to better pedagogy.  But consider this:
  • an inked document has so much more flexibility than the typical document.  Pictures, diagrams, doodles can mingle, then be stored and shared -- this allows students to communicate their ideas more clearly; it supports students who don't fit in the "typed document" mold
  • Inking has quick drag-drop and cut-paste properties. You can't select and drag on a piece of paper. A whole new world of editing possibilities open up for the student.  
  • an inked document has all the benefits of an electronic document: it can be indexed, tagged, organized, and accessed by the creator, peers and teacher
  • skills in artistry, hand dexterity, use of handwriting all become possibilities
  • Drawing pictures, creating diagrams and sketching tables are all a part of numeracy.  If we are asking students to go paperless, these skills could be left by the wayside without a good inking solution
  • Imagine: the teacher could take the inked work and screen cast comments.  Couldn't a video of teacher feedback working directly on a document improve learning?
A few provisos
  • the solution has to work on the many types of tablets I might see in my class. I want to focus on the big 3 to start: Surface, Android, Ipad
  • The solution would need to fit into existing structures well.  I plan on using Edmodo in the future but could be swayed in another direction if the benefits outweigh the losses
  • What should I do with the student toting a laptop without a touchscreen?
Now, as always, I am sure others have tackled and beaten this challenge.  But this is the gauntlet that I throw down . . .before myself.  Thoughts?

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Connected Classroom

Why connect?  A lot of learning has gone on for thousands of years before the internet came along.  Rulers have been wrought; professors have been produced, engineers have been engendered; teachers have been taught. So why be electronically connected? Why would a class tweet out its learning? Why would students have a Google Hangout with a company miles away? Why would one class Skype another? Because they can?

No.  Not simply because they can connect.  But because they must connect.

Right now the ice in West Antarctica is retreating.  In fact, this melt is deemed unstoppable.  Global sea levels will begin to rise.  Shorelines will change; areas will flood; coral reefs and entire habitats could disappear. Our children will be dealing with some serious climate change issues.  To prevent further damage, the world must band together.  We will all rise or fall. . .together. We must connect.

Researchers in the International Space Station are using the microgravity environment to further understand cancer.  German biologist Gabriela Grimm sent up the Danish thyroid cancer samples on the American SpaceX3 Dragon berthed by the Canadarm2.  All of us will deal with the effects of cancer in some way.  We are fortunate to have people from around the globe working on such a cause. . .together.  We must connect.

And the global  issues persist: poverty, war, famine.  And the local issues accumulate: funding for education, sedentary children, peer orientation in students.  Only in working out differences and working together will we be able to tackle the issues.  And what about learning in schools?  Isn't cancer and climate change far removed from the local school?  Not a bit.

We connect because we can effect change.  Now.

The possibilities are endless.  And we've just gotten started.  Here are a few things we do.

Make deals, and share

Greg Tjosvold is a local educator and author. He was offering a class set of his middle school level novel "Cash Converter" over twitter.  It was for free to teachers on the understanding that they would provide feedback.  I jumped on this one.  This wasn't an impersonal purchase of a well-established author's work.  This was a grassroots find.  A nugget in our own backyard.  Not only was the book great for us to use for our literature circles but we were able to have him visit our class.  We gave him pages of feedback.  We helped him and he helped us.

To start our new poetry unit, we used Nicholas Gordon's Poems for Free site.  Hey, gotta love free.  I tweeted him the night before to let him know that we would probably be tweeting from our class our reactions to his poems.  He was nice enough to oblige.  We read through many of his teen poems, shared how we felt about them using Today's Meet, then sent some feedback right to the author.

Become an expert, and share (even as kids)

When people from FreshGrade, the game-changing assessment app, asked our class to share their knowledge on project-based learning, several students jumped at the opportunity.  Hey, why not Skype into a company's lunchroom and share?  Each student prepared what they were going to say.  They were well-spoken and knowledgeable.  They were able to respond when asked questions.  Everyone gained here.  My students shared with a real audience who was truly interested in what they had to say.  And I believe the picture of project-based learning became clearer to the Freshgrade staff.

Make a difference, and share

One of our projects called Addressing an Issue has been like the gift that keeps on giving.  Students selected a local or global issue that they would like to make an effort to address.  Two of my students sold baked goods to raise money to support The Global Foodbanking Network.  Well, GFN asked if they could share an article on these students.  Once again, the students had to craft something.  They created an article sharing their story and lobbying for more support to address world hunger.  They emailed GFN a genuine piece of writing that was shared on the website.

In all of these examples, our e-communications connected us up with the real deal.  We had genuine audiences.  Genuine audiences are much easier to find with electronic connections.  But more-so, my students were able to make a difference, help an author, a company, a cause.  And connections breed more connections.  A class can't start with curing cancer or halting global warming; but they can certainly make a difference with the 200 days they have together.

Why connect electronically?

Because I want my students to be able to touch the world from the classroom.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Year of Learning Dangerously

Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (played by Mel Gibson) came to Jakarta to report on the political unrest surrounding President Sukarno and his Communist Party of Indonesia.  The times were tumultuous. Indonesians were facing stark conditions.  Army generals were gaining strength as they grew suspect of Sukarno and his Chinese connections.  Hamilton began on his own, facing unacceptance from the foreign correspondent community.  And though he met some that were willing to enfold him, he found himself alone, injured and caught in the middle of a military coup at the climax of the Indonesian crisis.

This historical fiction movie, "The Year of Living Dangerously", is near and dear to my heart as I lived in Indonesia under the rule of President Suharto, Sukarno's successor.  In fact, I was in Indonesia during Suharto's last days as president.  I remember the trucks full of supporters driving through the streets with flags waving the colours of Megawati's democratic red or the Development party's green or Suharto's gold.  In fact, every day was an adventure during my years in Indonesia.  I experienced discrimination, language barriers, culture shock.  And a lifetime's worth of tremendous life changing experiences.

I mention this as I reflect on my past year of being a connected educator: The Year of Learning Dangerously.  It was about this time last year that I asked my students to take their phones out of their pockets and lockers and begin to use them for their learning.  I felt like I was alone in this (though I was trailblazing a well trodden path).  There was a community out there doing much the same.  But I wasn't connected with them.  I took steps to join in the community.  I began to take risks, blogging, tweeting and learning from the collective.  Slowly my connection grew with other educators.

It began with my quest for students to use their devices in class, something I learned later to be called BYOT--bring your own technology (your device, apps, tech knowledge, online connections).  I knew it was right; I just didn't know anyone else was doing it.  I used my expanding connectivity to pursue apps and a learning management system.  But as I was learning I was intrigued not by the tech but by the teaching.  Soon a desire for skype chats, class tweeting, and student blogging lead to a pursuit of project-based learning and inquiry.  I rearranged all the British Columbia learning outcomes into projects and shared about it in Throwing the idea of subjects out the window.  I began "share-learning" (or is it learn-sharing) on project-based learning, sharing my first #pbl post: Project-based Learning for Dummies. Looking back, my connections were leading me well beyond what I was looking for.

Rising Action
All through this year, though, there was a tension: a pull back to the familiar.  I began my year with an attempt to flip my class.  I put math videos on Edmodo and had students complete IXL homework--a completely paperless response to a Math program.  I also began with a project-based learning Math challenge to measure the dimensions of my peculiarly shaped class and make suggestions for classroom re-creation.  Both activities started strong but weren't fully realized.  Regarding flipping, some parents wanted a textbook, others found it too foreign to embrace.  And for my PBL assignment, I was so inundated with slurpy machines and theme park suggestions for my classroom that very little changed other than the table placement.  Invoking lasting change wouldn't be easy and wouldn't come without challenges.

Character Relationships
Whether it was the connections I made at ISTE13 or through twitter, my growing PLN (Personal/Professional Learning Network) helped me develop.  Guy Hamilton would have gotten nowhere, if it wasn't for Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt) his local photographer.  He saw in Hamilton what others didn't and arranged interviews with key people.  Soon Hamilton was not only able to see what was really going on, he found himself in the midst.  That can be a dangerous place.  I am still learning how to leverage the PLN without getting engulfed in the vastness of the connections.  Can connections increase without becoming unwieldly?

The Climax
This was the year of looking for genuine activities and drawing students to pursue truly ungooglable questions.  In the midst of seeking a better pedagogy, I began to question the structure of the whole thing.  I was led to write a more controversial blog post in No Grades: coming to a school near you.  This was by far my connected climax as I had educators on both sides of the issue chime in.  Pedagogically, I had a never-go-back break through with a project I called: Addressing an Issue.  Students were asked to address a local or global issue that they felt strongly about.  I asked them to truly do something about it.  And they did.  I share what happened in The Problem with Project-based Learning. It was messy learning; it was great learning.

The Denouement
I guess this post has been like one of those sitcom episodes where most of the cast gets a night off and two of the characters reminisce through a series of flashbacks, a way to stretch out the content for one more episode.  But reflection is good.

It is a time of great possibilities.  There is an unrest with the status quo: a Connectivity Revolution if you will.  Those reading this will all have their own stories around first steps to connection.  And when faced with what one sees and hears during the revolution, a moral obligation ensues.  Now that I see what the possibilities are, I am morally obligated to pursue them.  Like Plato's cave allegory, once you see the sun, can you ever be happy returning to the cave and its shadows? Each educator participates in a story.

The Year of Living Dangerously is actually a love story.  Amidst the revolution, Guy Hamilton realizes what is important and what he needs to do.  His connections, particularly with Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), beat out his need for a breakthrough story.  It's the people that make the difference.  And it is knowing how to connect that leads us to realize: we are not alone anymore.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Project, Problem, Inquiry, & Passion-based Dilemma

I know a teacher who set up an elaborate learning experience for his students.  There were supreme leaders, battles and competitions; the room was divided (with tape) into kingdoms; it involved Olympic medals and quests.  It spanned weeks.  The students were engaged and learning outcomes from Math, Social Studies, Language Arts, and Drama were met.  The students loved it and learned from it.

But I wouldn't call it project-based learning.
No tangible product was made nor real-world problem addressed. 

John Larmer, Editor in Chief, at the Buck Institute for Education, has a great article that does a good job sorting out the ideas around project-based learning.  He describes it as:

"a broad category which, as long as there is an extended "project" at the heart of it, could take several forms or be a combination of:
  • Designing and/or creating a tangible product, performance or event
  • Solving a real-world problem (may be simulated or fully authentic)
  • Investigating a topic or issue to develop an answer to an open-ended question"
See: Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL by John Larmer.

Paul Curtis has a great graphic that compares traditional project use and project-based learning

used with permission from Paul Curtis

With it, you can easily see how the project-based learning project not only bookends the unit but facilitates the learning.  My friend's unit did both.  The students were in groups as well, a big component of project-based learning.  But to me, it still wasn't project-based learning.

Though my friend's unit included the real-world idea of competition, the "project" didn't strive to address competition nor unpack it.  War was simulated but work towards ending war or developing awareness of a particular war didn't happen. 

Though a student in the class might tell parents at home that they were working on a project, I don't see it as project-based learning.  And that is okay.

I wouldn't call it inquiry either.
The students didn't develop their own queries. They didn't seek to answer an essential question, something that couldn't simply be Googled.  Their curiosities weren't piqued when shown a remarkable demonstration as Ramsey Musallam (one of my top 10 meet-ups at ISTE 2013) explains in the video on inquiry below.

Questions of "how can our team win?" and "how can we solve the quests?" were asked by the students.  But they weren't the focus.  And that is just fine.

I wouldn't call it passion-based learning
The students did not spend time teasing out something about which they were passionate nor was passion necessarily a focus by the teacher.  Experts in certain areas were not sought out either.

Ainissa Ramirez Science Evangelist

Ainissa allowed me to use her graphic.  It excellently shows how passion-based learning is student-focused and a big part of the movement toward developing 21st century skills.  She sees that "passion for learning is the key pedagogy to prepare for 21st century challenges."  Angela Maiers wrote a whole book on passion in pedagogy called "The Passion-driven Classroom".  She tells of 9 guidelines to passion-based learning (found here), none of which my friend necessarily employed, be it the focus on digital media, the inclusion of parents, nor the seeking out of an expert.  And there is no problem with that.

I wouldn't call it problem-based learning.
The focus wasn't a problem to be solved.  The students weren't working on a solution to an open ended dilemma.

Thanks to Edutopia for letting me use this graphic

Although project-based and problem-based learning share the engagement of an open ended question, problem-based learning has less of a emphasis on the complexities of real-world issues.  More so, problem-based learning (made popular in medical education) has its focus on a paired down problem.  John Larmer shares 6 steps of a problem-based task:

"Problem-based learning typically follow prescribed steps:
  1. Presentation of an "ill-structured" (open-ended, "messy") problem
  2. Problem definition or formulation (the problem statement)
  3. Generation of a "knowledge inventory" (a list of "what we know about the problem" and "what we need to know")
  4. Generation of possible solutions
  5. Formulation of learning issues for self-directed and coached learning
  6. Sharing of findings and solutions"
See again: Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL by John Larmer.

So my friend's month long unit wouldn't be considered problem-based at all.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

The number one idea to get across here is that there is great teaching out there that doesn't end in "-based" (and there are a lot of x-based learning approaches).  Moreover, if you peruse blogs on this kind of stuff, you might even find the pundits saying: we decided to call something something because we wanted to define it.  And then there is the overlap.  When a group of students decide on a question to pursue the answer to, they may have to take actual steps to address an issue or create a product.  Or a project-based assignment may start with time developing a good question.  Even, the question might include making headway on something the students are passionate about.

I know that some say the umbrella is Inquiry and these approaches fall under it.  But are we having difficulties defining X-based learning (problem, inquiry or otherwise) because we are wanting to control learning by defining it.  Learning can't be controlled.  You might say to a student that has come up to you to show you her algebra: "Stop putting the letter in front of the number in your expressions.  You're making me crazy!" and she never does it again.  Your sponsor teacher from teacher college would have cringed.  But through the respect and relationship you had with that student, the student made a change.  Teaching is like agriculture: growth requires the right conditions but you can't make it happen.  Don't think that you can control it.  In fact, it is the students that are really in control.

I love project-based learning.  I think it is one of the best ways to not only engage students but have an impact on the world.  But I would hate for teachers to abandon the good and effective learning activities they do when confronted with such compelling methodology.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

No Grades: coming to a school near you

Grading (particularly, the absence of letter grades) is getting a lot of press these days.  In Canada, with Surrey, Maple Ridge, Calgary, Camrose and other districts and private schools piloting no letter grades in their elementary and middle school report cards, it seems that it is just a matter of time that the question "can we do without letter grades?" will be coming your way.  Here, I compile info and thoughts to aid those like me who are pondering the question.

The Setup
The Canadian spin
Surrey schools try scrapping letter grades
Maple Ridge schools say Goodbye to A, B, and D
Calgary eliminates letter grades for students up to grade nine in an attempt to save children from failure
Ontario no-grade report card

The variations
While Maple Ridge asks for 3 face to face meetings a year--student, parent, and teacher--in their new reporting process, Calgary says: no more personalized comments and only 2 reports a year.  Ontario seems to have no grades first term, then the standard graded report cards after that.  For some the focus is on formative assessment.  For others it is to protect self-esteem.  And for others, it is part of a new structure to reduce teacher time spent on writing report cards.

For Dr. Jim Christopher, Head of Kenneth Gordon Maplewood School in North Vancouver, a private school that specializes in teaching students with learning difficulties, their no grade report is about how students are:

 faring against the goals that we have set together in their Individual Education Plans (IEPs); where they stand compared to the expectations for their age and stage on the Provincial Learning Outcomes (PLOs);  and, where they are in the continuum of learning that will help them to chart their course to further success.
Nothing to Report - Christopher's Learning to Learn Differently blog

Although there are a variety of iterations, there is no doubt that strong feelings abound when it comes to giving grades.  From: "don't coddle children" and "we have to prepare kids for the real world" to "grades poison everything they touch".  Here are some of the passionate proponents and what they are focusing on.

The Proponents
Student Motivation
Alfie Kohn is quoted abundantly in the conversation around dropping grades.  He is adamantly against rewards, and has recently tweeted that "grades poison everything they touch".  Here is his treatise on grades:

"The more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward."

Kohn passionately shares how grades negatively affect education.  In terms of motivation, he posits that a teacher can't really ever motivate a student.  A teacher can never make a student want to learn.  And the more coercion and extrinsic motivators used, the more a student will become uninterested.  The best a teacher can do is to create an environment for learning and the worst he or she can do is kill motivation.  Kohn cites "three reliable effects when students are graded":

1) Students tend to think less deeply
2) Students avoid taking risks
3) Students lose interest in the learning itself
- in Kohn's The Trouble with Rubrics

In that same essay, which can be found as chapter 7 in his book Feel-bad Education, he quotes a 2004 Educational Leadership article by Natalia Perchemlides and Carolyn Courant where a grade 6 student says, "The whole time I'm writing, I'm not thinking about what I'm saying or how I am saying it.  I'm worried about what grade the teacher will give me, even if she's handed out a rubric.".  For Kohn, rubric or otherwise, it is the evaluation that kills the learning.

Alfie Kohn has written and presented a plethora of talks, books, and articles on grades.  Here are two that really summarize the specifics of his position:

From Degrading to De-Grading - HIGH SCHOOL MAGAZINE March 1999
Kohn gives 9 reasons to "say no to grades" in this article.  He also addresses some of the common objections including: students expect grades, colleges demand them, and how will teachers get "students to show up on time, hand in their work, and otherwise do what they’re told?".

To the college objection, Kohn counters:

 One might reply that “high schools have no responsibility to serve colleges by performing the sorting function for them” – particularly if that process undermines learning (Krumboltz and Yeh, 1996, p. 325).
Kohn describes how to make the change to no grades and even includes a letter to colleges that would accompany a list of courses and special projects and letters of recommendation to admissions offices.
The Case Against Grades - EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, November 2011
After reiterating his case, here Kohn lists 5 educational woes using the phrase: "It's not enough".

"* It’s not enough to replace letters or numbers with labels (“exceeds expectations,” “meets expectations,” and so on)."

"* It’s not enough to tell students in advance exactly what’s expected of them."

"* It’s not enough to disseminate grades more efficiently -- for example, by posting them on-line."

"* It’s not enough to add narrative reports."


"* It’s not enough to use “standards-based” grading."

In the article, he also shares stories of teachers who have made the jump to no grades: Jeff Robbins, Jim Drier, Joe Bower, and John Spencer.  And this J-group, though having varied approaches, seems to have similar results: enlightening conversations, better relationships, more student involvement, and better learning.

Kohn sees grades as part of a bigger problem though.  In a chapter (in Feel-Bad Education) called Who's Cheating Whom?, he says:

"Grades, however, are just the most common manifestation of a broader tendency on the part of schools to value product more than process, results more than discovery, achievement more than learning" - Alfie Kohn, Feel-Bad Education

Kohn calls us to re-think the hierarchy of our educational values, to turn on its head our result oriented education system, to focus on learning over achieving, and to bring students into the decision-making process.  His equating grades with rewards might seem simplistic, but he makes a great case for getting kids focused on the learning in schools, not just shooting for a grade.


Sir Ken Robinson also calls for a revolution in education.  In his 2006 TED talk, he shares:
"the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance and the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at in school wasn’t valued or was actually stigmatised and I think we can’t afford to go on that way." -

Sir Ken Robinson TED2006
I include Robinson not just because of the name, but because he looks at our current education system in such a way as to question not only the way we evaluate but also the way we choose our curriculum.  He sees our education system as the perfect incubator to create little more than college professors; the focus is the neck up.  Often we have much less interest in educating whatever is below the neck.  He's a cheerleader for the arts and calls for them to get just as much attention in schools as Math and Science does.

What does all that have to do with grades.  Well, he says that "if you are not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."  By the time we become adults, most have lost the capacity to be creative and to take a chance.

"we stigmatise mistakes. And we are now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities." -
Sir Ken Robinson TED2006
Grading leads students to choose the safer path.  If they're graded on a rubric, students will choose an easier project or a less creative lets-just-copy-the-teacher's-example kind of answer.  If it is a test, memorization and mnemonics are the shortest route to a good grade.  The revolution Robinson is calling for in its purest form seems to depart from the idea of grading.  The sorting path (putting students into A's, B's, C's and so on) and the path to promoting creativity are not the same.

Statements of Information
Joe Bower, an educator in Red Deer Alberta, has been teaching the love of learning in middle school for nine years.  On his for the love of learning blog he shares what "no grades" really looks like.  He feels that students should experience success and failure as information, not punishment and reward.  He set up a system of feedback that focused on what he sees, suggestions and questions.  For the term grades that the Alberta School Code required him to do, he kept evidence in the form of portfolios, and had the students self assess.  Rarely would a student over-inflate his or her grade, but when that occurred, Bower would deal with it through dialoguing with the student. 

If you are looking to stop grading, his blog has a wealth of resources to do it.  First stop would be Bower's Table of Contents, where he catalogues all his de-grading blog posts.  This is a bevy of thoughts, guest blogs, data, and appeals.  His work is honest and down to earth.  He even includes a letter to opt his own children out of being graded in school.

The Empirical
"Where is the data?"
The proponents above outline many studies that support the end of using letter grades.  Here is one that is very telling.

Ruth Butler of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem did a study that to me speaks even louder to the results of grading assignments.  In her 1988 study published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology (found here), she shows how grades become "ego-involving information" by the time students enter grade four.  I don't like Kohn's simply equating grades with rewards as teachers don't 'reward' students with grades, they evaluate--the grade represents the evaluation.  But Butler shows the effects of grades by splitting 132 fifth and sixth graders into 3 groups.  Each group was given the same tasks (one convergent and another divergent) to do but either received comments, grades, or comments and grades after their initial attempt.  Twice more the tasks were attempted and the results were surprising:

On the simpler task, after being given comments, both high achieving and low achieving students improved markedly.  Students also improved when they were given grades.  When comments and grades were given, however, the students did worse at the task.

On the more difficult task, comments again led to a better result, and again particularly with low achieving students.  Grades helped the low achievers, but hindered the high achievers.  Grades and comments again hindered the high achievers yet helped the low achievers.

But when no further evaluation was expected, only comments lead to improvement.  Butler concluded:

"Narrow preoccupation with grade attainment seems to affect the quality , if not the quantity, of immediate task performance, and to undermine divergent thinking in particular."
Grades seem to beget the need for grades.  They are not as effective as comments in improving learning.  And adding comments to grades seems to be about the worst thing you can do.

The Close
I am a teacher who has given grades for all my career.  I had to grade assignments in order to grade report cards.  I have never enjoyed it but I have always felt it was part of my job.  With the compelling reasons not to give grades here, though, I am faced with the need to evaluate my own practice.  Is there a good case for giving up grades?