Teaching Thinking

There are currently a couple of initiatives at my school that target thinking as a skill; I’ve been fortunate enough to be somewhat involved in both..

One of these is using the Philosophy framework, i.e. Socrates’ “Logos, Pathos, Ethos” to unpack how we think when faced with situations where we need to make decisions or we need to be persuasive. In a nutshell, what is at the forefront is logical reasoning for Logos, emotions for pathos and ethics, character and wisdom drawn from experiences for ethos. This is a simple framework that is very accessible for year 9s to whom this initiative is targeted.

Another one uses the neuroscience framework, i.e. “Pre-frontal Cortex (PFC), amygdala and hippocampus” – parts of the brain. In a nutshell, amygdala is responsible for our ‘flight or fight’ response or when we allow our impulses and emotions to rule our behaviour and thoughts. The hippocampus is in charge of storing our memories, like a scrapbook of our lives. The PFC – which is not fully developed in adolescent brains – takes care of thinking and decision-making and so, moderating our behaviour. This framework is very accessible for year 8s to whom this is targeted.

In Software Design and Development – and really many (all?) subjects, students need to think logically particularly when critically analysing, evaluating and making recommendations. In SDD, we look at software from the perspective of users and developers and yet I’m finding that my students are not leveraging their extensive experience using software to inform their thinking. Seems like such a waste of resource, right?

So, I told them about the 2 frameworks above. The idea is that the frameworks provide them with another way to view contexts. For example, when they struggled to name features of a banking system, a prompt using their own experience in banking opened a flood of features in far greater detail…and stories (gotta love those). A student who often struggles with staying on-task and is regularly disruptive was also quick to change when prompted with “you’re letting your amygdala rule; try a bit more PFC”.

In our last lesson discussing software installation methods, a richer discussion was had as students were challenged to think of examples drawing from their experience and how they may have felt (connecting to another syllabus content: impact of software to users). And so then, the logic of choosing one method over another makes more sense, from a social-ethical perspective. It may well merit adding to my list of ways to teach empathy.

I’m under no illusions of the impact or permanence of these changes.  What I’ve done is planted seeds that I hope to nourish in the next few terms as I help my students face the HSC and the wider world beyond. I’m teaching them to draw deep into resources within themselves as a way to connect beyond themselves (is any other way possible?). Teaching thinking skills is all part of building student agency.

This may be an unconventional approach to teaching the syllabus but for me, it makes sense. It aligns with my own industry experience and consequently, vision of introducing more of humanities into learning about and creating digital technology.

We write our own reports?

Ever had an idea you just had to act on?

Today with my year 10s, we had 15 minutes to ‘spare’ after we de-briefed their yearly exam paper. Just then, I had a thought to get them to write their own report comment. I figured ‘why not?’

So, I asked my students to spend the next 15 minutes drafting a 500-character report comment for IST. I mentioned that I have already drafted their reports – which was true – and that I wanted to make sure I did not miss anything – which was also true – and that I would use their input – which was more or less true.

One of the more astute ones asked, “Does that mean we write our own reports?”


I replied yes, of course. I write the words but in fact, what they do (or not) throughout the year is what is written in the report comment. So technically,  students do write their own reports. Right?

Awesome as they are, they humoured me and actually did the activity.

It was an authentic context to reflect on the year that was, how they were as learners in my classroom and even how they could improve. No scaffold. No prompts. No advice from me….just the time and space to do it…and a bit of ‘rah rah’.

I was so pleased by their honesty and accuracy of self-assessment. I was also pleased that my report comments got validated by theirs which, for my part, means I do know my students and that my data collection (via formative and summative assessments) and feedback systems work.

Writing reports can be onerous, often due to sheer volume and tight deadlines. This has been a ray of sunshine.

I would do this again as a win-win activity. That is, students reflect meaningfully on their learning – content and process and I, their teacher, gets validation and more importantly, personalised insights about them.


I do and I understand

Confucius says (oh my, I’ve been wanting to do that for ages…haha):

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

In my random clicking on the internet disguised as professional development (or maybe it’s the reverse), I found a couple of strategies interesting enough to try.


The first came from an Edutopia video, How to teach maths as a social activity. I’m a big fan of cooperative and collaborative learning and this video has good strategies. What I wanted to try immediately was called Fishbowl (video link). Basically, it’s having a small group sit and discuss while the rest of the class observe. I’ve heard of it before but this is the first time I intended to give it a go.

With my year 10s going into their exam block next week, and coming in from a 2-week school holidays, I thought that Fishbowl would be an interesting way to do some revision. So I set up 3 groups to discuss (1) Bias in algorithm, (2) Use of cookies, and (3) Robotics in employment.

These topics are directly related to the topics we did this year (1) Software Design and Programming, (2) Internet, and (3) Robotics.

I gave them 5-10 minutes to do a quick revision using our class notes or to look up on the web. This had to be done individually, i.e. no discussions. Then, the group took turns to be in the Fishbowl.

While I set this out as a revision exercise, what I found was Fishbowl is also an effective assessment activity. I doubt I’ll use it for summative assessments but as formative assessment, it was really good to see what the small group, and whole class, knew…or did not know…or got confused on. It also contextualised my assessment tips such as – give specific details, use technical terms and make sure you know their definitions, think of positives and negatives when discussing issues, you can link topics we studied,  use Asimov’s Laws on Robotics when discussing issues, and the like.

Tic Tac Toe + Jeopardy

Our current unit of work in 9IST is game design, a culmination of the Digital Media and Software Design and Programming topics we studied this year. They also have a yearly exam coming soon and I thought what better way to do revision than to play games. We will unpack the following experience next lesson and use that to feed into the work they yet have to do.

I found my inspiration in a recently discovered (read: yesterday) differentiation site, daretodifferentiate (link to Choice boards or tic tac toe, though the wiki site warrant more exploration). I wanted to try it straight away but all mu units are already designed so I figured I might as well use it for revision….and as a game!

The plan was to have a choice board with easy, medium and hard questions – that’s the tic tac toe part. Assigning points to the questions was the Jeopardy part.

I’m not going to include all the questions here but here’s a small sample so you get the idea: easy – JPEG is a lossy format (True or False?), medium – Define algorithm, hard – Explain one way that text can be digitised. For points, I gave 100 for easy, 150 for medium and 200 for hard.

Using the simple definition of games = goal + rules, I discussed the rules of tic tac toe and Jeopardy. They work in groups, nominate a speaker (and there can be no repeat speakers) to provide the answer. I also added a rule of ‘stealing’, i.e. if a group can answer a question better then they “steal (the chance to earn)” the points. This was actually good to ensure they all tried their best and that they listened to other groups. Revision and learning were happening at individual, small group and whole class level. Granted, still at different levels but even the quietest student could learn from others at least. I dropped the ‘tic tac toe’ all in a line across three columns because I had 3 groups…but that would be fun to design to get some blocking strategy happening as well.

Speaking of designing the thing, I wanted to implement this in Scratch, or with more time and effort – JavaScript or Python perhaps. But, given that I thought of this on the eve of using it, I resorted to a table in PowerPoint and using animated blocks to hide/reveal the questions. It’s been a while since I used the ‘click on object’ as trigger (default is just click anywhere) that I’ve forgotten about it. On the whole, it worked quite well actually….yep, a PowerPoint hack 🙂

Even with a short activity, I can see the power of differentiation through choice….and of course, I’m convinced about cooperative and collaborative learning anyway.

9IST groups in a huddle, discussing strategies and answers

9IST groups in a huddle, discussing strategies and answers

Back to Confucius

There are so many teaching and learning resources out there and seriously, there are many good ones. Finding ones to try and then actually making it happen help cement them in my mind because I don’t only know of, I also understand.

Also, because I mostly teach via Project-Based Learning, my students have done the ‘do’ bit and yet, as I’ve uncovered in these revision activities today, they don’t always remember or understand. And so then, back to Confucius:

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

Revision (look at again) – as an example of reflection (look deeper perhaps over-and-over from different perspectives) – has shown a path for remembering and understanding. In writing this blog post, tired as I am after an all-period teaching day on the first day back at school in 35C heat, I have forced myself to revise and reflect on these strategies.

Ah, I feel wiser now…haha

Can you imagine?

Little did I know that my post “Have wings, will fly” would turn out to be prophetic. The wings helped inspire a cross-curricular collaboration between 5 year 9 classes to create a spectacular exhibition inspired by VIVID Sydney.

I used the wings as a prop for a friendly challenge of ‘Can you imagine….us having our own version of Vivid?’ very early in the school year.

Not only did we imagine, we made it happen. By we, I don’t mean just the teachers but especially our students and with support from the school community. This was no mean feat and here are just some of what I’m really proud of:

  • 2 9DT teachers and myself wrote our course programs and assessment tasks to suit
  • Going on an after-school excursion and not losing any kid
  • Collaborating with other teachers and members of the school community – we’ve never done anything of this scale
  • Staging an exhibition, including an opening night where we got Vivid designers talk to students (thanks to Joachim Cohen from Intel for helping make this happen).  Harmanto Nguyen- Toy Shadows and Simone Chua – Affinity were awesome and I got to showcase our students work to them, too
  • Having students that are proud to share their work publicly (here’s our YouTube playlist)
  • ultimately, making real that which we imagined

A bit more background info: 9DT-Textiles designed and created garments as well as accessories with soft/textile circuits. 9DT-Rigid materials designed and created light installations for outdoors. 9IST designed and created digital movies/animation using iconic buildings as their canvases. 9PDM captured light photography.

A bit more detailed info on my IST project for those who may want to build on the idea.  This was a PBL on the Digital Media topic, specifically movie and animation. The challenge was to “create an illusion of movement” using frame-by-frame animation. Working in groups to create a movie 2-4 minutes long, each student has to create 30-45 second segments which should include at least 15 seconds of frame-by-frame animation; the rest could be video.

Each group had a tab in the class OneNote where all deliverables were outlined, whether or not they were part of the assessment for reporting. They had to document target audience and purpose, concept maps, storyboards, etc. I created the Project Schedule for the class and gave mini deadlines (activity and time chunking is a good strategy to help manage projects spanning an entire term as well as help identify students who are at risk of non-submission). This shared space facilitated seeing what others are doing and thus, peer feedback, both written and oral. The quality of the end result is testament to the validity of this practice.

There are the obvious option topic outcomes involved in designing, producing and evaluating. This included a variety of data manipulation techniques including the use of layers, masks, garbage matte, transparency adjustments, special effects, etc. There are also core topic outcomes relating to project management, communication techniques, career options and issues.

At the end of the project, I also did a structured review using peer instruction or think/pair/share with answers written in the class oneNote (shared notes, yes?).  Here are the questions we worked through (I had more as we discussed):

  1. Define:
    1. Animation
    2. Frame rate
    3. Morphing
    4. Warping
  2. Was your animation mostly cel-based or path-based? What’s the difference between the two?
  3. What file types were used for your project? What software programs created them? Can read them?
  4. What factors affect the file size of finished movie?
  5. Contrast embed and link?
  6. Define keyframe
  7. Was the storyboard helpful? If so, in what way? If not, why not?
  8. Which communication technique proved most useful for you – verbal, written, graphical and visual? Provide detailed example.
  9. Rate your contribution to the group on a scale of 1 – 5, 1 being ‘meh’ to 5 ‘rock star’. Justify your rating detailing your criteria and detailed example.
  10. What advice would you give to next year’s 9IST if they were to do this project?

I think the structured post-project review was really helpful to assess learning, clarify misconceptions, fill gaps and revise course content using personal experiences. It’s a great way to end a PBL unit.

At the end of this review, I showed this path-based animation created using Scratch and character/costumes drawn by one of my students (check out Group 4). This not only helped compare/contrast cel-based vs path-based, it also served as a relevant segue into the next topic, Software design and programming 🙂

Long post I know but it barely scratches the surface of what this experience has meant to me.

If you have a similar story or feel inspired to initiate a cross-curricular collaboration, please leave a comment or relevant link.

Multimedia PBL and wrestling with the marriage problem

After a term break from PBL, I’ve gone back to it with both my 9 and 10 IST classes. I’ve been meaning to share the ‘idea’ but just haven’t got there (Is it really week 4 now?). Anyway, I’m glad I’m doing PBL again now as well as incorporating some of the things I’m learning as I do my Masters in Special Ed.

So then, in this post I’ll share my 10IST PBL plus a (rough) lesson plan that targets content (IST: problem definition, GUI design) as well as an example of teaching approach that promotes active response (one of the effective teaching principles I’ve learned about recently).



We’re about a third of the way in and most of the theory have been covered (via direct instruction) by  now. However, I’ve noticed that while students ‘get’ the idea of what engagement looks like or what ‘good’ GUI looks like, I wasn’t convinced that they’ve wrestled with it enough to apply in their own projects.

(rough) Lesson Plan

So I designed this lesson to show how a topic could be presented online in three different ways. The topic is a probability problem popularly known as the marriage or secretary problem.

I divided the class into discussion pairs.

First, I showed the wikipedia version which provided a  brief description of the problem. Discussion was first done in pairs and then as a class. This is the first time the class have heard of the problem so there was a lot of “I don’t get it” and a few, “yeah, I’ve encountered that problem heaps of times”.

Then, I showed this academic article version which provided, as expected, a more academic description of the problem and solutions. There were ‘whoas’ as we scrolled through the voluminous and dense text blocks and equations. Again, discussion pairs followed by class discussions. We got to unpack some of the GUI principles to do with form, function, navigation, layout, etc. just by comparing this with the wikipedia version. They were applying the content previously learned, both in terms of concept and language. Their analysis of GUI design is becoming more sophisticated and this is awesome.

Finally, I showed this NPR article with a sensationalist and attention-grabbing title of How to marry the right girl: a mathematical solution (thank you @fawnpnguyen for the inspiration!). We went straight into class discussions on this one and highlighted which GUI principles made this one more engaging, including the use of graphics and share/comment buttons – a feature they may well include in their projects.

There was also a bit more discussions when one of the students piped in that she thought the wikipedia version was more engaging with its neutral tone and predictable structure. This emphasised one of the key things in the design process, i.e. problem definition and how wikipedia addresses a different problem (and audience) than the other two. Engaging‘ then, is relative (gotta love those lightbulb moments). Therefore, as they set off creating their own solutions (project product), they need to be mindful of the problem they are actually trying to solve.

Then, I asked them to create their own version of the topic in what they think is engaging. Students challenged themselves to learn more HTML and CSS tags and JS scripting, based on what they want to learn and incorporate in their own projects.

Sometimes lessons work according to plan, if not better. This was one of those. It can be better but I sure was pretty happy with it.

Discussions in pairs and whole-class with plenty of opportunities to raise and answer questions as well as working in pairs with plenty of opportunities to synthesise are strategies for active response to help with learning engagement. Students are constantly wrestling with the content from different angles. 

An exciting footnote:

The student who preferred the wikipedia version went on to do more research on the marriage problem because she really wanted to understand it (she was in the minority, I assure you, but enough to make this ex-maths teacher a little bit happy). And in doing so, has illustrated yet again the beauty of tangential learning and the power of inquiry driven by curiosity.