Development of a new Online Learning Platform

Originally published in UWCSEA Dunia Magazine: co-authored with Adrienne Michetti

Since its inception in 2011, UWCSEA’s iLearn initiative has broadened our scope of 21st century learning. While our early focus was on providing students with necessary digital tools and supporting teachers to use technology effectively, over time it became clear that our traditional classrooms were expanding to encompass a variety of online spaces. One valuable effect of this is that our online spaces allow for continued discussions and learning long after the bell has rung. Over the last three years we have used Google sites, documents, presentations and a variety of other web-based tools to help classroom learning continue online.

As our face-to-face classrooms in Middle School and High School evolved with the addition of laptop computers, it was inevitable that our online learning spaces would also evolve. During the 2012-2013 school year, we began to research and evaluate how online environments might naturally extend face-to-face learning. We established working groups to test and pilot various platforms that would support ‘blended learning’ (the seamless amalgamation of face-to-face and online learning).

Research suggests that blended learning environments can be beneficial to student learning under the right conditions; that is, when they combine the best of face-to-face learning and online learning. Blended learning environments need to have two key elements to be effective. First, the system must support asynchronous and constructive dialogues; i.e., they must allow students to collaborate and provide one another with feedback, even when they are not online at the same time. Secondly, there must be opportunities for learners to digest important content and teacher explanations before a face-to-face lesson (Luckin et al, 2012). Our vision at UWCSEA is to provide online tools at an institutional level, accessible by all teachers and students, to support this emerging best practice.

The result of our working groups’ research and development has been this academic year’s soft-launch of our new UWCSEA Online Learning Platform. At our East Campus, the Online Learning Platform replaces and expands the components of East Curriculum Online, and at our Dover Campus, it supersedes StudyWiz and other Google Sites in the Middle and High School.

A primary reason for needing a new online learning environment was to increase opportunities for communication, collaboration, and socialisation around learning now that our face-to-face classrooms had evolved. Further, we recognized a need to provide ready access to curriculum content resources such as unit outlines, teacher instructions, or multimedia materials. Long term, it will also allow us to more effectively collect and give feedback on student work, which will help us to expand the ways we might use student assessment for authentic learning. Already habits are changing: our Online Learning Platform has become a one-stop shop for learning and resources, resulting in a noticeable reduction in emails.

The Online Learning Platform is currently living and breathing in a variety of ways across the College Middle and High Schools. In Music, students are sharing example compositions with classmates, whilst some History and Economics classes are using it to encourage co-construction of meaning and collaboration. Science departments are developing units which allow students to progress flexibly with course material, or to review concepts ahead of class to activate prior learning.

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All teachers using the Platform are now posting homework tasks online; doing so allows the Platform to synchronise information from each student’s multiple courses into one personalised calendar for him/her. As such, our students now have access to a dashboard all of their individual homework, allowing them to prioritise tasks and manage their time to meet deadlines and other extra-curricular commitments.

Over the last 12 months, UWCSEA’s Digital Literacy Team have worked closely with developers of “Teamie,” the Singapore company behind the Platform. We continue to work with them to tweak and enhance the Platform so as to effectively support learning at our College. We look forward to the continual evolution of our learning spaces, mindful of best practices for student learning with digital technologies.

Luckin, R., Bligh, B., Manches, A., Ainsworth, S., Crook, C., & Noss, R. (2012). Decoding learning: the proof, promise and potential of digital education. Retrieved from


Dealing with Digital Distractions in the Classroom

The pattern of behaviour resulting from the ubiquitous access to technology at our school is the perceived level of student distraction. Overtime we hope that students develop coping mechanisms to deal with digital distractions and the risks of multitasking. The long term impact of not dealing with this, is that student develop bad habits that linger throughout their professional careers. Focusing on single tasking and deep authentic learning is a key lifeskill that we hope that students at UWCSEA develop.

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Debunking the concept of Multitasking

The concept of multitasking describes the idea of someone flicking their attention between two separate tasks. When the students are working on laptops, the temptation to switch to a different task is just a quick swipe of the trackpad away. Because it become so easy to work on multiple desktops or between numerous tabs in a browser multitasking has become an unproductive habit of many students.


We know from research that every switch between tasks leads to a decline in performance. If the switch is from one simple task, directly into a second simple functional task there maybe no impediment. When we are trying to immerse ourselves into deeper conceptual and abstract thinking, multitasking is a severe impediment to our collective efforts. It is a misconception that we can multitask and successfully juggle two complex tasks.

How does this affect learning?

There are lots of ideas about how lessons should be made shorter and learning split into bit size chunks for information for students to digest. The counter-argument to this is making lessons a place of socialisation around learning; and a “no-hands up” environment where every student is accountable as suggested by Dylan Wiliams. Further to this notion, we want student to experience the flow involved in authentic independent learning tasks.

To achieve these aims teachers need to make a concerted effort to encourage greater single tasking and constant reinforce. If student are completing a more process based lessons, or functional tasks in Maths or Science they need to how these activities occur in a the classroom.

What do we know about best practice?

Best practice is when teachers develop an environment of trust, and where every student is accountable for their learning. Whilst the temptation may exist to open Facebook during class we would hope that the student would balance this against the eventual lose of trust with the teacher and disappointment from the teachers or peers in the class.

Best practice suggests that explicit expectations and transparent consequences are the other important element. Ideally these expectations are developed by the students and used across the school. Best practice would also suggest that having a routine at the beginning of the lesson where devices are on but closed or placed away until the learning requires the internet.

A plethora of teaching approaches

Other than developing an environment of trust and clear expectations there are numerous other ideas which can hopefully encourage students to be on task for longer.

  • Seating arrangements which change from group activities to independent tasks.
  • Learning objectives which show students where the learning has come from and where it is heading.
  • Developing an environment where each student can be called apon to answer questions and contribute.
  • Use of timers such as Triptico to focus students attention into chunks of time or to break up longer task.
  • Providing opportunities for students to discuss and dissect the learning in groups or independently.
  • Intentionally providing students with opportunities to stand up and circulate
  • Ensuring that teacher circulates among the students, or sits in the groups as a participant.
  • Enforcing devices to be closed when the instructions to the task are given.
  • Asking one student to be the groups electronic scribe whilst others discuss.

Coaching for Digital Literacy

Recently myself and several colleagues (Jeff Plaman, Louise PhinneyKeri-Lee Beasley, and Clint Hamada) were provided the opportunity to present a workshop at the Learning 2.012 conference in Beijing. We ran a 3 hour extended workshop focused on Coaching for Digital Literacy and produced an iBook to support the learning. The workshop was the fruit of our adventures in the last 12 months in being full time Technology Coaches. In reflection the process of writing a book and running a three hour workshop was the best professional development I have had in a long time. The reason for this was being able to bounce ideas around with four other passionate educators… even at 11pm on the evening before the workshop.

The majority of the audience were teachers who had stepped into roles with a coaching expectation, where they are working with colleagues as either a consultant, a collaborator or as a coach. As the discussions in the workshop highlighted, the role of technology coach is very new in many schools. We hope that our book, which is a synthesis of the work of Bill and Ochen Powell and others will become a resource to support people stepping into the role and school leaders who are launching a technology focused learning initiative.

The workshop explored ways to build rapport and participants had an opportunity to practise these skills in a three way conversation. The conversation focused on building a conversation using questions that probe, allow a pause for thinking time and paraphrased to shift the conceptual focus. The second half of the workshop explored technology integration frameworks, shared some of the latest research from Ruben Puentedura, and looked at practical coaching approaches that have worked in schools.

The book from the workshop is freely available by clicking on this download link. You will need to click and open this link from your iPad allowing the book to open in iBooks. (Note that it will take a while as the file is 600mb)

A static PDF of the iBook is also available here.

Moving from examples to understanding an abstract concept

Through my lessons this year, I have been working on strategies to help my students to both identify and understand concepts more deeply. As Economics is founded on theories and interconnected abstract concepts, it is therefore a key pedagogy we teachers need to be proficient with. In the work of Lynn Erickson and other theorists, this begins with the idea of concept acquisition. This post outlines two connected approaches that I find useful.

  • sort, organise and grouping examples
  • Frayer Model – definition, characteristics, examples, non-examples

As explained by Erickson, concepts are mental constructs that are abstract, timeless and universal. (Erickson & Lanning, 2014, p.33) They can be either broad in their context such as the concepts of change, interdependence or systems which are potentially interdisciplinary in nature or subject specific concepts such as complements, substitutes or unemployment like we look at in Economics. These are also distinguished as macro or micro concepts, where micro concepts connect to the depth of subject knowledge in each discipline.

Teaching to support conceptual acquisition:

One activity I see and utilise frequently is the classic sort, organise and group activity where you provide a wide arrange of examples relating to the concept and get students to identify similarities, differences and connections. In this case I was scaffolding students towards an understanding that:

products are related and the price change in one product can impact demand of related products. eg. complements and subsitutes

In this case students quickly grasp the idea of products being substitutable or complementary to each other, but they often muddle the nuances of the relationship and the relative strengths of connections between goods. The aim of the activity is to look at the different types of goods and place close complements together eg. playstation, a game and a tv and then also group examples of close substitutes. (cough lozenges and cough syrup)

Analog vs Digital?

I have explored lots of digital approaches to this sorting activity and yet feel the analog and tactile approach is more effective. Below is a screenshot from Google Slides where you can give students the collection of images and they sort into categories left and right, but after trying both approaches, I feel the learning become less collaborative and students are not inclined to speak as they move and group examples on their screen. The quality of the dialogue, visibility of each other’s work was better with cut outs and poster paper where I could circulate and observe.

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Consolidating understanding

A perfect follow on activity is to use a diagram called the Frayer Model to get the students to record their understanding. The Frayer Model is essentially a graphical organiser you can use to capture either prior knowledge about a concept as a pre-assessment, to capture thinking after an activity, or as a tool to revisit and refine as students learn more about the concept through an inquiry.

  • an operational definition; in subject terminology what does the idea mean?
  • characteristics; what are the unique properties of the word that are shared by the examples.
  • examples; in what examples are these properties clearly illustrated?
  • non-examples; in what examples are these properties not illustrated?

The prompt asking students to list non-examples is really important as this is where you can identify some misconceptions. For instance peanut butter and jam (or jelly) might seems to be a complement for some people, but might be substitutes for others and a non-example.

Capturing the thinking

You can of facilitate this in different ways e.g. pairs, groups on poster paper, but I have found using a Google Slides template as an effective way of scaffolding the students but also being able to track their work. It is a good tool where you can give comments, and where students can go back to as the learning progresses and make changes. It is also useful if you want students to scroll and see other students examples and ideas.

Together the two approaches are an important tool to help students build understanding which can later help them transfer and apply ideas to other situations.

Other related posts to explore:

The following are posts written by colleagues at the East Campus of United World College of South East Asia in Singapore. These cover the same ideas but from different subject angles.

  1. Open Sorting for Concept Formation
  2. Learning Concept words in EAL and transfer strategies
  3. Concept acquisition and misconceptions




Yes, Quizlet got even better; now with diagrams

Quizlet remains as one of those Swiss Army knife style apps that you end up repurposing and going back to time and time again. Last year it got a significant revamp with the Quizlet Live game feature and now there is a clever addition called Quizlet Diagrams.

The new diagrams tool goes further adding a really clever visual layer. You can pin a term to a specific part of the diagram and then the students use the match or learn tools to revise which term matches which part.

How does this improve learning?

In essence using Quizlet is a perfect approach to get students to revise new terms or develop and broaden their vocabulary. In Economics I want student to use the appropriate terms and words to explain the nuances of complicated concepts and models. For instance we want our students to confidently use the term ‘appreciation’ rather than trying to just say that a currency has gone ‘up’.  In my experience Quizlet is a pretty good tool to help develop this basic knowledge and helps to do this is a faster and more engaging way. Ultimately we want to spend more time in class help student to apply their knowledge and skills to new contexts and to develop conceptual understandings. Quizlet is therefore a super effective method to explore in your class.

How do I use?

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  1. You need to sign up for a free Teacher account with your GApps account
  2. Search the diagrams examples for your subject
  3. Duplicate an existing set of flashcardsor create to start a fresh
  4. Drag a screenshot or image into Quizlet
  5. Use the pin icon to add terms.

Are there examples I can look at?

There are lots of really clever examples already created and available online. You can share any of these with your students by posting the link into any online learning platform. There are a few useful ones for Economics. I have linked one below that I developed for the circular flow diagram.

Have a go and test yourself first !

  1. Circular Flow Diagram – IB Economics
  2. Biology Cell Structure Diagram
  3. Soil Layers Diagram – Science and Geography
  4. Match the European Country
  5. Spanish Vocab – el desayuno (what’s for breakfast I think 🙂

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How do students access?

You can copy the link directly from Quizlet and send this to your students with the Online Learning Platform (Teamie) The two best modes from students to practice diagrams are either Learn Mode or Match Mode.

Learn mode is very clever and randomly gives students either match or multiple choice questions based on the set of flashcards you have created and it helps students track which ones they find easy and those which are harder. This was recently improved and really supports independent learning.

Match Mode is probably the best supported to diagram and give the students a random challenge based on the flash cards you have added to a diagram. See below


Quizlet Diagram

When online learning amplifies the face-to-face classroom

Life as a High School teacher is a tricky balancing game. Conversation in the office revolves around the trade off between doing something in incredible depth through an engaging lesson or skimming over something quickly.

This tradeoff comes about because as High School teachers we still feel that we are the best people to explain and unpack a concept with students. Students know that only a couple of clicks away are some amazing resources unpacking the same kind of content in often more engaging and informative ways. You need to look no further than Khan Academy, the 200 million viewed Crash Course of YouTube fame, CK-12 Foundation, or bespoke resources such as Kognity to see the role technology plays in the evolution of content creation.

Honest teachers understand where their key advantage lies in a changing landscape.

A contemporary teacher designs quality learning experiences, scaffolds learners, provides targeted feedback and questions students to deepen understanding. The contemporary teacher is comfortable with utilising technology to support students acquire knowledge and skills. They create cleverly efficiencies and hacks; saving time by effectively outsourcing parts of learning process to creators like Crash Course. They use tools like EdPuzzle allowing them to track student progress, collate responses and use this data to differentiate learning experiences in the face-to-face environment.

Yet I feel frustrated when I see teachers “chalk and talk” students through basic foundational ideas. The same teachers who simultaneously bemoan a lack of curriculum time and overloaded syllabuses.

I want to help a greater number of teachers see value in online learning experiences that will likely characterise our same students university lives.

Online experiences at home in a flipped class model or in flexible school environments, segue and amplify what is possible in the face-to-face classroom. We need to strive to spend our class time focused on lifting students conceptual thinking and ability to transfer understanding to new and novel contexts. We need to make the most of the clever content creators and leverage adaptive learning technologies.

In exploring this model of my school, I see four key characteristics as being instrumental to its success.

  1. Planned content is focused on activating prior knowledge or developing understanding
  2. Online tools offer high quality external content or teacher created material in a blended (any time, any place, self paced) fashion.
  3. Software or platforms allow teachers to track participation and engagement with content.
  4. Connected tools help elicit and collating responses to later support differentiation in the face-to-face classroom.

Otherwise illustrated with the graphic below.

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In exploring this in more depth we have a range of suitable tools available to our teachers, many of which are free and accessible. My aim for next academic year is that teachers have a framework to understand the value of online learning experiences and also a toolkits of applications to replicate quality experiences.

Some example workflows could be as outlined below. These include tools such as our Online Learning Platform (Teamie), Padlet, EdPuzzle or Google Docs. Click here to download and view the graphics below.

Blended Learning


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Grappling with the concepts of the circular flow model

FullSizeRender 20A really fundamental model in Economics is the concept of the circular flow and the basic economic system. We use this to help explain the main sectors of the economy and the flows of money between the different component parts. Overtime students come back to this model to help analyse government policy, the ideas of interdependence in terms of open and closed economic systems.

It is a fairly abstract idea but the concept of money flow and sectors is an important one and something we all try to unpack in different ways. With Phil Woolrich and his Grade 11 class, we looked at a nifty online tool (Loopy by NCase) to help develop student understanding of a closed and open system. Our beginning was an illustration of an analogue model of an economy which uses water to illustrate the flow of money. The idea of taking an abstract idea and creating a tangible metaphor is something we wanted to explore with our students.

Phil proceeded with a mini-lesson on the component parts of the model, beginning with the households and firms and then adding extra parts of the economy (financial sector, government sector and then the overseas sectors and trade). They had a chance to take notes on this while we explained the concepts.

To finish off we let the students take their knowledge from the mini-lesson and try create a model similar to the water analogy.  We used Loopy as a digital tool to illustrate the interconnectedness of the circular flow diagram. There is no precise way to draw this model so it was interesting to see different interpretations of the model, all showing the same ideas.

My sample diagram is below with other student examples in the links below. You can interact with these models and change the variable, but for some reason I can’t get them embed correctly onto this blog.

From a teacher perspective I think it works ok to help illustrate the connections and flow of money but the way the arrows work on each sector is a bit misleading. When I click to increase the financial sector I am increasing the rate of investment, which flows into other sectors… but I should really be changing the interest rate. The way that taxes work also feels odd. You can change the way the arrows work to either increase the next circle (+) or to decrease it (-) you can also set the default size of circle to begin with. It does have lots of application but need to have a bit more of a play. Students really like the experience as it is one of these instant feedback, iterative tools. They can draw and change directions and just testing how it works to improve their thinking. They can save the link to come back to improve later or click on someone else’s and the remix button to adapt.

A really good blog post on the tool to support systems thinking and the environment is here. Plenty of inspiration ! If you try the tool and think of other applications please comment below. Our Geography and Environmental Science teachers have lots of ideas.

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click to interact with diagram

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click to interact with diagram


An Overview of the World Studies Extended Essay for IB and Economics

This week we were luckily enough to have a specific workshop on the World Studies Extended Essay option for students. Here are my notes, thoughts and some examples from the session and ideas on how it connects to Economics. This information reflects changes to Extended Essay in light of the new guide beginning for August 2016.

The World Studies Extended Essay is a rather secret option of the Extended Essay for students. It is a one of possibilities of the Extended Essay (EE) for students to choose this as an interdisciplinary option where instead of choosing one subject focus on at least two subjects in a combined fashion. It was initially a pilot connected to Harvard Project Zero initiative and available for examination since 2013. It is examined using the same criteria for all other Extended Essays.

An in-depth interdisciplinary study of an issue of a contemporary global significance.

Finding a focus for a World Studies EE

The following is a process for thinking about a World Studies EE (WS EE) The most important thing to keep in mind is find a link from something small (eg.local, micro) to the bigger idea (, meta, macro)

  1. should identify topic of global significance that resonates with them
  2. consider a local context or small aspect as an example which connect with the global issue or bigger concept.
  3. develop a clear rationale and research focus
  4. finally decide which subject disciplines are most useful to combine and answer the research question.

Using the following as a possible example:

  • Global Significance: Climate Change
  • Local Context: government policy to limit carbon emissions from cars in Singapore.
  • Research Question: What global lessons can be drawn from the Singapore experience to in limiting car emissions in Singapore support the global political agenda for Climate Change.
  • Subject disciplinary lenses: Global Politics, Economics, ESS

When we focus on the interdisciplinary nature of research we will see that the whole is more than the sum of the parts and the importance of disciplinary specific tools to assess the whole from different perspectives. A nice example of framing an interdisciplinary study is here on the IB website.

Some examples that got A’s in May 2016:

  1. Investigating the environmental and economics impacts of the ‘dead zone’ in the Chesapeake Bay and proposing what can be done. (Geography, Economics)
  2. What are the obstacles and possibilities with respect to Kurdistan establishing a fully sovereign and independent kurdish homelands. (Global Politics, History)
  3. How has the rapid development, industrialization, urbanisation affected the eutrophication ? A case on the Bay of Izmir in India. (Biology, Economics)
  4. How does the ‘The Quiet American’ by Graham Green reflect on American oppression and expectations of Indochina. (English, History)
  5. To what extend does caffeine use correlate with osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and gout in Germany and India. (Economics, Biology)
  6. To what extend do oil revenue influence stability of political institutions in Alberta and Saudi Arabia and how can we pursue global economic and political stability by reducing our independence. (Economics and Global Politics)
  7. What is the situation of Palestine refugees in Lebanon with respect to their human rights and how is that affecting their economic status. (Global Politics, Economics)

Some common misconceptions:

Although students can must look at any two subjects, some combinations are ill-advised. One big suggestion is to find connections across the groups of IB subjects and be careful about choosing two subject lens from only one one IB Subject group. eg Chemistry and Biology are probably too overlapping and also Geography and History and obviously Economics and Business Management. The nature of interdisciplinary research is explained very clearly on the IB Extended Essay website.

The local vs global context is an essential aspect of WS EE but don’t take this literally as purely in geographical terms. It can also refer looking at a bigger meta concept vs a small subpart of the concept.

Essays should contain both primary and secondary data. This is no longer an explicit requirement within the EE rubric so many WSEEs can be completed using only secondary data. Very few can only be answered using primary data as secondary research provides the context.

Contemporary issues should be within the lifetime of the students completing the essay, so this excludes lots of historical events.

Themes exist for IB WS EEs but are purely used to organise the marking allocation and should not be at the forefront of the students thinking.

  • Culture, language and identity – most popular category
  • Conflict, peace and security – least popular
  • Equality and inequality
  • Environment / Economic stability
  • Health and development
  • Science, technology and society

How do you structure towards an interdisciplinary approach in 4,000 words?

It is important for students to think about how they will construct the essay. Will they speak to one subject area then the other then move to develop some conclusions ? Do they look at subjects together to identify differences or contrast subject based perspectives. For some students the following model might be a start.


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The use of subject specific terminology concepts from both subjects throughout is really important so it makes sense that students should really study both subjects they have chosen. To pick up on Global Politics concepts without studying the course is possible but it was be hard to get up to speed with the many complicated subjects during the time frame of the EE.

Implications of the new Extended Essay guide and World Studies EE.

In the same way as other subjects the new EE guide has shifted the emphasis from a long set of 11 criteria to a newer set of five. Essentially the new criteria are a repackaging of the old criteria and are now more holistic with greater emphasis now on critical thinking, engagement and reflection.

  • Focus and Method (6 marks)
  • Knowledge and Understanding (6)
  • Critical Thinking  (12)
  • Presentation  (4)
  • Engagement  (6)

Giving the total of 34 marks. The new assessment criteria is available on the IB website. The biggest change focuses on the emphasis for reflection so you will want to look through some example prompts on the website to focus your 500 word 3 part reflection.

Who can and should supervise World Studies Extended Essays?

Any teacher can supervise but you need to point students towards subject specific resources and focus your meetings with the student on development on argument and looking for perspectives that other subject lens bring to the topic.

Should I do a pure Economics EE, or a World Studies EE with an Economics focus?

Tricky question….In our workshop a huge range of potential topics were discussed, many of which included Economics as a possible focus. The World Studies option gives you more flexibility to follow your passion in Economics but to also tie in another subject of interest. Many issues we look at in Economics are connected to other subjects. Just a few ideas that I find interesting are below but you will be able to think of others in your context.

  • Mekong Dam – development of the dam is creating electricity for Cambodia but creating complex transboundary, political and environmental, ecological issues. An article from the Economist is a good stimulus. In this case the global issue is the river, but micro looking at smaller villages along the river. (Connections could be…Geography, Economics, Global Politics, Environmental Systems and Society)
  • Unemployment – the social impacts of unemployment are really interesting in many countries and persistent long term and high youth unemployment are causing issues in parts of Europe. You could look at issues like motivation to work, social stress etc (Psychology, Economics)

The trick seems to be find a passion that connects a big idea such as Poverty to a smaller context small village and then looking at possible subject connections. Don’t begin with a subject in mind more with an interesting topic.

Happy to answer comments below about topic ideas.




Evolving Professional Learning

Over the past ten years I feel my practice as a teacher has changed beyond recognition. I have experimented, failed, tweaked, written, rephrased and reinvented nearly every aspect of my lessons with the goal of making the learning more effective for my students.

Over the years I cannot point to one professional development event that was pivotal in shifting this practice. In fact I can’t remember much about my learning in the first years of my career. The thing I do remember was the feedback I received from people who came into my class and observed. From observations in my teacher practicals to focused feedback from an early Vice Principal, I think I can still count on my fingers the number of times someone has been into my class. Teaching remains such an isolated profession and one in which you receive such limited feedback. I have written about this before, but I am still astounded with the quote below; as would parents and students with whom we are entrusted with educating.

Few other professionals are so isolated in their work, or get so little feedback, as Western teachers. Today 40% of teachers in the OECD have never taught alongside another teacher, observed another or given feedback (Economist, 2016)

Looking back at my professional growth there have been a few big one off events which have challenged my thinking (perhaps…Dylan Wiliam, Punya Mishra) and the odd Tuesday afternoon professional development session. But the most powerful ongoing learning has always been over coffee, on the couches in the office or in well structured collaboration sessions. Too many of our sacred Tuesday afternoon slots are gobbled up with administrative demands and for one-size fits all sessions. I am conscious that we need to balance the desire for top-down strategic initiatives to improve teaching and learning with the need to provide space for everyone to develop the craft of teaching.

All schools know they need to make more time for this but it remains a constant struggle and especially so in the High School setting. I am jealous of my coaching friends Primary School contexts who have a team time and collaborative planning and seem to make more progress.

With teaching as with other complex skills, the route to mastery is not abstruse theory but intense, guided practice grounded in subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical methods (Economist, 2016)

What is the way forward?

I fell in to a rabbit hole of research and reports late on Monday night and there is lots of interesting and contemporary ideas being written about. A gem of a report from McKinsey “Five promising ideas for more effective professional development programmes” points to five ways to be more strategic and is worth a read.

  1. base the PD program on a vision of effective teaching
  2. segment teachers and deliver PD strategically
  3. make coaching the centerpiece of PD
  4. move from “push” to “pull,” so that teachers get what they want, when they want it
  5. only offer PD with demonstrated impact.

I think our school has done a lot of foundational work to develop teachers standards and learning principles which both guide our vision for effective teaching. The two areas where we could evolve is the differentiating or segmenting support for teachers and placing coaching and feedback at the centre of the professional learning. In the High School we have nearly 160 teachers so it is incredibly hard to cater to everyone.

Segmenting is a concept illustrated below, which for instance takes all teachers with less experience and invested in them highly regardless of performance. This is a likely valid approach to get staff up to speed with a new school and common issues. After the second year we begin to see different tracks of support with specific initiatives targeting high performing teachers (top practitioner tracks) and different investments into low performers. These two areas are ones where we need to be more creative. How do you leverage expertise of your best teachers most effectively? The struggle is what to do with the middle group. We had moderate success with formal “professional learning communities”, but again not everyone want to be part of one at the same time, and yet the groups needed time to meet. In pockets these are reemerging as small groups of teachers in a single department focusing on one project such as formative assessment strategies for Physics. In other departments teachers all share their personal learning goals and then might form into groups to help each other.

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Coaching is the second point which is well explained in the report. Coaching doesn’t need to come from one or two expert teachers who are spread thinly across the school, but should become part of the culture of a great school where everyone can offer feedback and help through reflective dialogues with colleagues. A report from the Sutton Trust in the UK – Developing Teachers – highlights lots of different examples of developing a culture of coaching and excellence including the Triplets model outlined below.

Teachers work in groups of threes to observe and coach each other on an individual ‘teaching target’ at the Herbert Thompson Primary School in Cardiff, Wales.

In the first term, teachers are given training on carrying out lesson observations, what an ‘excellent’ lesson looks like and coaching skills. Each teacher then records themselves teaching a lesson. They pick an area of their practice for improvement and set a ‘teaching target’. They then meet with the two others in their ‘Coaching Triplet’ and share their targets.

In the second term, the Triplets observe each other teach a lesson (with one teaching, one observing/coaching, and one giving feedback on the observation and coaching). In the third term, the observations are repeated with a senior leader providing quality assurance.

In our school I would like to run ‘open-classroom’ weeks and try identify other easy ways to develop a culture of feedback and collaboration. We don’t want to step back to formal appraisal systems but be open to seeing each other teach and to give focused feedback and ideas.

My folder of research is here if you wish to look through, but please comment below with approaches you have used at your school to develop meaningful and ongoing professional learning.


Coverphoto – JustyCinMD – caterpillar 2

IB Diploma Onscreen Assessment – stepping into the unknown

A year ago I spotted an interesting development for the International Baccalaureate programme tucked away in a blog post on their website.

Substantial planning is underway for the migration of DP examinations from paper to on-screen. We are extremely excited about this important development for the IB. It means that exam papers will no longer be printed and couriered to schools, students will instead sit on-screen examinations on a computer, laptop or tablet. We will have some on-screen diploma examinations available as an option from 2018. (Technology advancements in DP assessment: IB Community Blog)

Yikes, I thought the day where students would do exams online would be years away. Well… it is still is a few years away, but closer that I would have anticipated for a huge organisation with over 150,000 students completing the IB Diploma exams each year. Last year was the first time students in their Middle Years Programme had the opportunity to try an optional end of programme online assessment so it does seems like the next logical progression for them. Since the announcement I have pondered some implications.

The chicken or the egg?

Curriculum and the intended learning goals should always guide assessment. In a “backwards by design” approach we are clear about what outcomes we hope students will achieve and are clear on what kind of evidence we need to collect.

Online assessments open a range of new possibilities in some areas to redefine what we could assess in the final exam. In the traditional hand-written exam the material presented to the students is in many ways one dimensional. We may show them data, a picture or map but is is just printed on a page. We can now provide multimedia stimulus such as video resources or interactives and manipulative resources showing data.

IMG_4325.JPGYet at the same time are we constraining the questions we ask students to what is possible in the online software? How easy will it be to annotate a graph? draw a diagram, or sketch a model in the margin to enhance your answer? I still can’t fathom how student’s in Economics will a draw an unemployment diagram like illustrated here to support their writing? Surely this is a significant issue for Physics, Biology and Chemistry. Will more and more questions default to a text format or response?

If the assessments do indeed broaden what can be assessed in the final examinations will this lead to changes in the various curriculum guides overtime? Will be interesting to see if the online nature of assessment better suit more concept based assessments.

The Mathematics exam seemed to be the most complexing for me, as you are reducing a problem solving process to a range of online boxes. I was yet pleasantly surprised to see the sample screenshots below or an MYP Maths assessment where students could annotate using the drawing pad at the right and then use formula in the boxes at the bottom to complete their answer.

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MYP Mathematics – Sample Assessment (IBO, 2016)


Would students prefer the offline or online experience?

As a teacher I feel that student work which is typed assessments is more refined, whilst the hand-written work is more organic and nuanced. Student’s write with sections crossed out as they try to reorganise their thinking. My students comment that the one element they struggle with in the traditional exams is the inability to drag and reorganise their thoughts as they are used to in the online environment.

An interesting piece of research around the MYP eAssessment project is available here written by the IB. It highlights the trend where students are becoming more and more digitally literate, creating a disconnect between the classroom experience and the format of the traditional examination. Furthermore they and others speculate about the connection between the motor skills of writing fluently, either offline or online and “the expression of the higher order thinking skills necessary for high quality essay writing” (Peverly, S.T. (2006). This difference might be especially stark when so many of our students type and work online for much of the school day. Many may find that the slow speed of their handwriting compared to their cognitive ability constrains their ability to demonstrate this understanding in exam situations.

They also comment on the findings in research by (Mogey and Hartley, 2013) focused on essay writing under timed conditions, “that typed responses seem to be slightly longer and score marginally better on readability measures”. Both of these findings resonate with my experience that students now feel more comfortable in the on-screen world and the step back to written handwritten assessment each June, will soon be part of history.

Produced by IBO 2016

A logistical and expensive nightmare?

With nearly 2,500 schools in 143 different countries, the IBs sprawl is amazing. Yet schools are often located in areas with very different socio-economic backgrounds where technology usage is incredibly varied. For this reason I presume that the MYP eAssessments have been an opt-in project for schools who see value and have the technology provision to make it work.

In our school, every student has a personal laptop but if your infrastructure is limited to a couple computer labs then you will struggle to run the assessments. Yes, technology is now ubiquitous in many contexts, but this is usually just an abundance of mobile or tablet devices and not a laptop or PC.

It is likely that for a long time schools will have the ability to run off-line versions of the exam with handwritten responses. You can imagine that the existing English examinations could work equally as well both offline and online when the stimulus provided to students is static. However once you begin to tweak the questions for subjects such as Science and ask questions in a different style of format the offline becomes impossible. Surely all students globally must complete the same format of final examination. Therefore the will be a tension for a couple of years, and issues for school IB schools to scale up their technology provisions.

I visited my previous school last year to see how


ISS International School

students were using the practice eAssessments, and they seemed rather unconcerned about the development and happy. Behind the scenes there was a world of juggling USB sticks to install the software for each student and later download the files to again upload to the IB servers. For each exam you need to ensure each student has a USB with the examination and then ensure you upload the students work correctly to the system before repeating this for the next examination. For a stretch of three weeks this will be an added overhead to schools, and harder than the current process of storing, opening and then resealing and posting the exam packages.


Next steps…

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MYP Maths – Sample eAssessment

The IB organisation has yet to announce any subsequent details about the launch of eAssessments for the Diploma programme and their initial mention was suitable vague about the 2018 phased introduction. In practice I guess this means that some subjects have an on-screen option for Grade 11 students beginning the DP programme in August 2018 for final examinations in August 2020? For our school I think that means our current Grade 9 students will be the first to cohort to have the option in some of the subjects such as English or perhaps History where style of questioning is typically more text heavy. For other subjects such as Economics or Maths the wait might be slightly longer and may match the rollout of the new syllabus and the curriculum reviews.


In the meantime I hope our Grade 9 students are practising their speed typing skills.

Further Reading and Resources:

Concept maps to deepen thinking in Economics

Concept mapping is a visual approach which forces students to focus on the abstract concepts and to make generalisations between interconnecting ideas. It can be used as a pre-assessment or formatively or even revisited through a unit of work if you use a digital tool such as Mindmeister. The approach is applicable to any classroom which is founded on a concept based curriculum and big ideas. Whilst it seems like a mind-mapping or brainstorming activity it has more structure and intentionality where the teacher must outline the key concepts to focus on.

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In Economics our Grade 12 students are grappling with a set of interconnected concepts related to International Trade which form the basis of their understanding of the topic and lead to them being able to answer the key questions for the unit of study. These are very much micro-level concepts and discipline or topic specific, as opposed to more macro-concepts such as opportunity costs. They bigger ideas are more trans-disciplinary or ‘meta’ in nature. There is an excellent paper produced by Lynn Erickson for the IB which digs into this concept based teaching and learning more deeply.

The concepts we explicitly focused on where

  • inflation (sustained increased in average price level over period of time)
  • tight monetary policy (low interest rates to increase aggregate demand)
  • appreciation of currency (relatively value of currency increasing in terms of another)
  • trade deficit (value of exports – value of import)

We could check for the understanding by asking them to write a couple of paragraphs but there is something far more powerful in having them do this activity visually and off-line.

Step 1: Students should all be able to define each concept separately as listed above. This was a knowledge check based on previous definitions of understanding of economic models. The students write these beside or around the circles.

Step 2: Students can begin to explain some of the interconnections between each of the concepts. They can draw a line and then write a generalisation alongside. Some students can probably make one generalisation that higher interest rates would likely lead to the appreciation of the currency. From this students can really diverge in their thinking and begin to find other connections.

img_8240Step 3: A good protocol for this style to activity is to give student lots of independent and then pair thinking space. I gave them 10 mins in near silence first to commit some ideas to paper. I then paired my students up with someone new to discuss their concept map, then again matched  pairs to form groups of 4 so they could develop their thinking even further.

Step 4: The final twist I added was to stretch their thinking through the use of a question that would allow them to transfer their knowledge to the opposite scenario. This is where interest rates fall and to check if the government could possible achieve three macroeconomics goals at once (high growth, stable and low inflation, balanced trade) I think you can always add an additional question at the end which can allow the groups of 4 to ponder a more meta-conceptual question. In economics the meta-concept in this topic is the opportunity cost that governments must make trade-offs when trying to satisfy the five macroeconomic goals. After a discussion students could write an answer to this question in the left panel.

Grit: The power of passion and perseverance – Angela Duckworth

static1-squarespaceWith three young boys in our house, reading a book from cover to cover is a rarity. So when I was heading away to a conference recently I took the opportunity to dive into Angela Duckworth’s first book Grit. It was the first book in a long time I read in two long stints and couldn’t put down. The narrative is very well developed and easy to follow whilst diving in and out of research, case studies and anecdotes from spelling bee champions to Olympic swimmers.

In summary it reads as an excellent synthesis of related works in the field of psychology by Carol Dweck (Mindset), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow), Daniel Pink (Drive) and Anders Ericcson (Peak).

Why do naturally talented people frequently fail to reach their potential while other far less gifted individuals go on to achieve amazing things? The secret to outstanding achievement is not talent, but a passionate persistence. In other words, grit.

Overall, Grit is a profoundly interesting read for anyone working with students and it can help us unpack concepts such as IQ, talent, skill, effort, practice, purpose and perseverance. For students there are some huge misconceptions around the value of talent and what Angela explains as our unconscious bias towards the idea that talent leading to achievement.

Angela’s background itself is an interesting story. She left a high powered career as a consultant with McKinsey to become a teacher and overtime furthered her studies to become a psychologist. Her research ultimately explores why people become successful and the book break this down focusing on the following big ideas.

  • the value of effort and how this can develop talents and skills
  • how grit can be learned
  • how life long interests and passions are triggered
  • the value of optimal practice and suffering

You may have spotted her TedTalk back in 2013, which itself is a great preview of the book and something nice to share with students. Hope you find the time to read the book and enjoy as much as I did.

Extended Essay Day

For the final Monday of the school year, we ambitiously took our Grade 11 students off timetable to spend a day helping them looking more deeply at their Extended Essay. They have all begun defining research questions and conducting preliminary research in the last couple of months.

Our Extended Essay coordinator Joe Jasina, outlined the aims of the day to upskill students in academic honesty, referencing techniques, ways to source information, digital skills and academic writing so they can begin next term confidently and complete their writing. The session began with all 330 students looking at academic honesty and then later splitting into three sets of mini-workshops led by our Teacher Librarian Kurt Wittig and subject specialists. (see detailed overview) We finished the afternoon with a 90 min writing fest to get students progressing with their writing and a good test of our wifi network.


The day highlighted a couple of interesting things to me. Firstly, our students are super passionate about their topics and many of them truly engage with them in deep and profound ways. Asking High School students to write 4,000 words to critically explore an issue of personal interest seems like an immense challenge, but have always see it as the most interesting and distinct part of the IB Diploma.Secondly, despite our best efforts our student’s digital and information literacy skills need a lot of work !! Over the last five years since introducing laptops for every student we have perhaps left too much of this skill development to chance.

Essential digital and information literacy skills

I see the following as some really essential skills for our students and at the moment we still have a long way to go.

  1. Sourcing academic journals from electronic databases
  2. Digitally annotating PDFs with highlights and comments
  3. Utalising online citations tools effectively such as RefMe to collate references
  4. Quoting, paraphrasing and summarising skills
  5. Formatting and word processing tools (Headings, Table of Contents etc)
  6. Using Turnitin Originality reports as feedback on quality of referencing.

Preview Annotation

Along with my other Digital Literacy Coach we introduced some suggested digital workflows which are covered below. I have always felt technology can really enhance and quality of student research when used to help organise and scaffold their thinking. Tools like RefMe are immensely powerful in helping students track secondary research and should help them throughout university.

I also ran sessions looking more deeply at primary and secondary research in Economics. After looking through the past Extended Essay reports from the IB, you can highlight some important points to students.

It is the second time we have run the session at Dover Campus after a few successful similar days at our other campus. I think students really valued the chance to get their head around the topic and as they say

a job begun is a job half done

Bring on the summer vacation.