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.

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.

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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.

What makes effective teaching?

This week’s Economist magazine explored a question I have thought about a lot in my career. Is the ability to teach an innate skill that some have, and others do not; or is a skill that can be developed and taught? Our perception of whether great teachers are either born or made, leads to dramatic differences in how schools structure and emphasis professional development.

What really matters in education?

20160611_FBC639Plenty of research by John Hattie and others, now points to the fact that the quality of the teaching is the most important factor in shaping a child’s educational success. Over and above factors such as smaller class sizes or streaming by ability, the top 20 factors relate exclusively to what the teacher can do in the classroom. Therefore we need to make a very conscious effort in schools to upskill teachers in both the what and how of effective teaching and make exemplary practice more visible to others.

In my experience schools can explain what teachers should be doing to improve practice with documents such as IB Approaches to Teaching and Learning, but struggle to prioritise time to give teachers adequate support in discovering how these ideas can work in their classroom.

How do teachers learn?

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)

The article makes interesting reading and highlights what several progressive groups are doing to help new teachers develop mastery through intentional practise, coaching feedback and relentless assessment. I don’t consider this to be anything revolutionary, but it is being done relentlessly and at scale. In my job as Digital Literacy Coach the most significant change has not come from sending out emails of ideas, but from helping teachers seeing how other respected teachers are using technology and then providing cycles of support, coaching and reflection to help the teacher grow and be confident.

In mainstream education, I think the development of teachers pedagogy is left to chance and seldom improved in a systematic manner. It is by chance that someone once went on a course on collaborative group work, or has read a book on formative assessment. Schools must encourage greater structured collaboration between peers and provide opportunities and time for exemplary teachers to support, mentor and coach others. I wasn’t really surprised by the statistic reported in the article below about such incredible isolation in the profession.

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)

I do wonder if teachers at our school would respond in a similar fashion? I would hope that more than 40% of our teachers over their career that they have experienced these collaborative aspects. Despite every effort, schools still remain a closed door profession especially in High School settings. However it seems simple to engineer opportunities for greater feedback, observation and team teaching. Once a month could you cancel a weekly meeting and instead ask staff to observe a peer in their free periods?

This article more than most, has piqued my interest and I will try make two of the key observations from the article personal goals for next year;

  1. Engineering more opportunities for teacher collaboration in the form of team teaching, observation and feedback.
  2. Make the how of effective teaching more explicit to our teachers. We have a well document list of learning principles but not everyone has the same practical understanding how some of these could be employed in practice.

Additional Research and ideas

Below is some of additional research mentioned in the Economist article. After a bit of searching it presents a wealth of contemporary knowledge if you want to dive deeper. Hattie’s latest work is a good read.


Quizlet – back to an old favourite

Quizlet is fast becoming one of those Swiss Army knife apps that you end up repurposing and going back to time and time again. Like most teachers you probably got the email about their new Quizlet Live feature so I was keen to give it a go.

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. 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.

Quizlet Live is a free games based add-on to the core flashcard tool. The game cleverly takes any existing stack of vocabulary and definitions and then creates a game. On the first prompt students visit Quizlet Live and then enter your class code from the screen. You need more than 4 students to join and then it will place them into groups.

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The best hint is to get kids to then move to sit in the randomly allocated group. Once you click begin, the students have to match up the answers. (see demo) Each member of the group has a different list of four terms which they can use to answer the pop up question. Collectively they use the terms to answer all of questions in the race to reach the end first. A great catch is that if they get one term wrong it makes the students start again.


On first impressions it sounds a little simple and a bit too much of a game, but it was one of the most fun and yet effective end of lesson activities I have done in a long time. Yet at the same time I think they all have mastered a broader list of terms that will hopefully help develop their ability to write more academically like an economist. Never underestimate the competitive nature of teenagers on a Monday morning.

A couple of hints to make it a more effective assessment task…

  • Share the Quizlet set of terms with the students for homework to look at independently before they do the game in class.
  • Carefully choose your lists of terms. A couple on my list had the actual word in the definition so made it easy to guess. (this was my Macroeconomic set)
  • Add a few terms to really stretch the students, or even from the next topic. 
  • Once the game is finished the screen changes to show feedback… essentially what were some commonly confused terms, what was the hardest to get correct etc. This is a good learning point where students could add to their notes or the teacher could unpack the misconception. (my students all stumbled on the inflation/disinflation/deflation terms and it was a timely reminder when the game prompted the kids to reflect on this at the end)
  • Pictures you might have added to the quiz don’t show in the game at the moment
  • You need at least 6 kids and I think at least 12 terms to make it worthwhile.
  • You can repeat the same activity at the end of the game and choose to keep students in the same groups. If you want to then use a different set of terms you need to restart Quizlet Live and it then resets the groups. 
  • The best Econ terminology sets I have found are here 

Enjoy and please comment if you find it useful or have other ideas on it’s use.


Where to next..? Goal setting and the meaningful use of Technology.

It that crazy time of the year, when we as a school begin pondering our goals for next year, whilst still trying to make progress on our ambitious plans from a year ago. It is also a landmark for me and the end of our ‘iLearn project’ which introduced the use of technology to our teachers and students and has lead to significant changes in student learning. iLearn is now operationalised and a part of our school culture.

This week an interesting critique on Educational Technologies by Alfie Kohn grabbed my attention and made me question the types of goals we are setting. The Overselling of Ed Tech questions if the promises of technologies disruptive and innovative power to change education have ever been borne out. The most poignant remark below resonated with me as someone who has always worked in excellent, yet largely traditional academic schools.

The rationale (for use of educational technologies) that I find most disturbing — despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it’s rarely made explicit — is the idea that it will increase our efficiency . . . at teaching in the same way that’s persisted for a very long time.

Perhaps it hasn’t escaped your notice that ed tech is passionately embraced by very traditional schools:  Their institutional pulse quickens over whatever is cutting-edge: instruction that’s blended, flipped, digitally personalized.

This apparent paradox should give us pause.  Despite corporate-style declarations about the benefits of “innovation” and “disruption,” new forms of technology in the classroom mesh quite comfortably with an old-school model of teaching that consists of pouring a bunch o’ facts into empty receptacles.

Which makes me think, what has really changed at our school over the last five years? Has technology provided opportunities for student’s flexible progression, unhindered innovation, critical thinking and collaborative learning as we initially envisaged in our planning?  Or as Alfie Kohn mentions has our technology use “perpetuated, traditional teacher-centered instruction that consists mostly of memorizing facts and practicing skills”

I think we have to be very cautious of pandering to individuals and the use certain apps and tools which do little more than enhance teacher-centered instruction. For instance does the conversation about a quiz tool Kahoot focus on revising facts and keeping the kids engaged, or does it also provide data to cleverly inform differentiated groupings in the next lesson? Does the use of an online learning platform just deluge students in greater flow of resources and bring the teacher-centric paradigm online, or does it empower student to ask questions, resolve each other’s concerns, progress at their own pace and make connections.

Essentially, I think we need to be consistently raising the rigour and relevance of the technology related goals that our schools, departments and teachers set so that technology is used to support or even transform student-centred, inquiry based models, not just seen as tool to bring greater efficiency to linear, exam focused, teacher centred approaches as illustrated by Kohn below.

We can’t answer the question “Is tech useful in schools?” until we’ve grappled with a deeper question: “What kinds of learning should be taking place in those schools?”  If we favor an approach by which students actively construct meaning, an interactive process that involves a deep understanding of ideas and emerges from the interests and questions of the learners themselves, well, then we’d be open to kinds of technology that truly support this kind of inquiry.

Show me something that helps kids create, design, produce, construct — and I’m on board.  Show me something that helps them make things collaboratively (rather than just on their own), and I’m even more interested — although it’s important to keep in mind that meaningful learning never requires technology, so even here we should object whenever we’re told that software (or a device with a screen) is essential.

I think our school has a firm grasp of that we mean by effective learning in the form of our ten learning principles. Other recent developments from the International Baccalaureate and the development of the Approaches to Teaching and Learning philosophy further illustrate that we as educators know the conditions under which student learning flourishes. Technology goals should therefore be written and pursued to enhance, or amplify these ideas and provide students with even more beneficial learning experiences. This therefore provides teachers with a framework to determine the relevancy of different software and tools. For example should we buy more Document Cameras so kids can see a textbook via the projector, or can we use it to record mini-lessons or to unpack success criteria and allow students to access these at their own pace.

Lots to think about, but would be interested in other school who have mature use of technology and how them look to raise the bar through goal setting processes.

(less) Stressing over presentations

On several occasions over the last couple of years, I have been asked to present something technology related to our staff. Presenting at our school can be a bit of a daunting experience. An average High School meeting can be 200 people, and a campus meeting even bigger. As a newbie teacher five years ago, the concept of presenting to a large meeting gave me palpitations and I always over planned with mixed results. I never considered myself a natural public speaker but instead muddled my way through. Some people say that teachers spend their whole life presenting, so should therefore have no problem doing the same to a bigger audience. In my experience it is a completely different experience, taking someone from their comfort zone of the classroom and asking them to present to their peers.

Over the last couple of years I set professional goals in this area to try improve. I never aim to to be world’s most witty, charming presenter but hopefully I can be someone who can present sometimes dry material in an engaging and thoughtful way and make our teachers think and reflect.

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My baptism by fire was presenting a 5 min keynote at the Learning 2 Conference in Bangkok in 2014. (if you look hard enough, there is a copy of it on YouTube somewhere) It was probably the most stressful thing I have done, but in the process and in reflection. I learned a method which works for me and overtime has helped me be more confident in my delivery.

My current routine goes a little like this….

  1. Explore what data or research can support the presentation – I always try to hang my message off some specific information from the context of our school. It could be survey data from a student perspective or quotes from a focus group. Teacher tend to be more engaged with stories from our school and numbers to back up statements.
  2. First mockup of slides – Begin by spending an hour, usually the week before a presentation (hopefully not the night before) putting an idea into slides and thinking through a sequence. Usually Google Presentations or Keynote for something bigger.
  3. Speak through for the first time – Might seem odd, but once I have some rough slides; usually with bullet points, boxes or a couple of pictures, I will try find a venue and then talk through the presentation with no notes. I usually find that during a first run through my ideas come together better as I verbalise them.
  4. Identify chance for engagement – somewhere in every presentation you need a chance to let teachers talk to their elbow partners. When practising there will be a natural spot where you can let teachers predict what the next answer might be, or to take an idea and then discuss how this relates to their classroom practice.
  5. Back to the drawing board – usually once I have done the first verbal run through, I have a more complete set of ideas and proceed to rehash the slide deck completely. Here I put a huge effort into the layout of slides, usually removing text and bullets (putting them into the notes instead) and replacing them with icons, images, aligned boxes or diagrams. Everyone knows the message about much too much text, but if laid out nicely on the page some text works and adds depth to your message. Sites like Slides Carnival are useful inspiration, but I try take elements of the templates rather than follow them strictly like a recipe.
  6. Speaking notes – once I am happy with the sequence I will go through and type my notes into the semblance of a script usually as a table in a Google Doc, where I drop screenshots of the slides into the document. (see example here and below)
  7. Find a humorous hook to begin the presentation – everything seems to go better if you can find way to get the audience to laugh in the first couple of slides. It seems to loosen the audience up and break the tension.
  8. Add a couple of animations – I have am yet to use the text in flames animation, but a few subtle animations give me reminders of what to mention and help pace my speech.
  9. Final practice and refine notes – once notes and slides are sorted I will go to the actual venue and do a complete run through whilst plugged into the projector. There is something different which happens when you practice in the actual venue and you always end up ironing out an issue with the projector, or remembering to plug in the audio cable. Depending on time and importance of the presentation, I sometimes place my iPhone on a chair and film my practice. You always cringe when watching yourself but it always reminds me that I need to speak clearly, mumble less and stop saying um.
  10. Follow up – I always try post my presentation somewhere, or email it to staff as a reminder. Some super reflective teachers will delve into your notes but at least it keeps your message in people’s mind slightly longer… well at least until next week’s staff meeting 🙂

If you read as far as the 10th bullet, you might think that it I am spending a crazy amount of time on one presentation. You are probably correct…, but probably also under-estimate how long some people take perfecting their message. Some of my school leaders write the most elaborate scripts for presentations and it seems to work for them. You can obviously spend a lot of time on the visual layout and I am sometimes guilty of spending too long, but I am now a lot faster and use simpler imagery. (My tech colleague Noah Katz has pretty much taught me everything I know about design and layout). Essentially each person has their own way of doing it. For me I realised a few years back that despite having nice looking slides, I tended to go off on tangents and then get confused and mumble so having something to look at helps me stay focused and confident. I don’t use presenter notes in the actual presentation as feel I can never manage to juggle the dual screens… (I know slightly ironic for someone trying to presenting about technology.)

This week I presented on a rather dry topic with our High School staff on the issue of Digital Distractions. Both the presentation and notes are below to give you a sample of my process. I got one nice remark at the end that I managed to engage everyone with two activities in the middle and that there were plenty of practical take away tips. A lots of work for a 20 min presentation but probably worth it in the long run.