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


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.

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.

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.