It’s happening

Last Saturday, I went to the Project Learning Swap Meet organised by Bianca and Lee Hewes. It was inspiring, challenging and ultimately motivational in a ‘Make this happen’ sort of way. So then, while I thought my first blog post about PLSM would be about the day, I’m now blogging about how I came to making it real and happening on my first school-day back, in the middle of an existing project.

Circled are some of the ideas I thought I’d implement straight away.

notes on the back of the booklet Bianca shared

notes on the back of the booklet Bianca shared

I teach 8 Technology and on my rotation, students learn about Textiles and Digital Technology with a project involving the Design, Production and Evaluation of a pyjama set. It’s a common task for 4 classes taught by 3 teachers, including myself. The task has plenty of PBL elements including student voice and choice. Collaboration happens but more incidental than planned. Products are displayed along the hallway for all the school to see.

After attending PLSM, I felt inspired, challenged and motivated to implement some of what I learned on the day. Because I spent hours yesterday designing a Project Packet for year 7s (subject of another post), I decided to focus on something smaller for year 8s; something NEW that would be beneficial straight away.

Year 8s are submitting the Design products tomorrow which include sketches of their ideas and Final Design (the PJ set they’re actually going to make). I thought it would be good for them to get peer feedback prior to submission.

Techniques used (got all these from PLSM):

  • Gallery Walk – items for feedback are put on display and peers write feedback on post-it notes
  • Scaffolded Feedback – Based on @missjessm ‘s suggestion of “I like…Have you considered…”, the class decided to use +1 for “I like” and a star for the “Have you considered…”. Students suggested the ‘star’ and I’m still unsure why, maybe because it’s easy to draw?
  • Goals, Medals, Missions (I’ve used this before but the document here is new to me) – using the task assessment criteria, I listed the Goals. These were the basis of the +1 and star comments as well….i.e. things to consider when writing feedback



Students each had 3 post-it notes so they had to be more picky of what they wrote and who they wrote for. They could always add a +1 or star if they agreed on what has already been posted. It worked really well and every design got peer feedback. This went on for about 10-15 minutes.

Everyone then got their sketches and considered the peer feedback and filled in their Goals, Medals, Missions sheets.

Here’s what I observed:

  • Quality of peer feedback was excellent and the use of scaffold was evidently effective (eeek, that sounds so teacher-y)
  • Students appreciated the +1s and even more so, the stars – i.e. suggestions for improvements
  • Students were surprised at how true the peer comments were, making the +1 even more affirming
  • Students were more motivated and directed to create better quality products
  • Some students noticed things I haven’t (how good is this??? and yes, I’m collecting the post-it notes and GMMs)
  • I’ll know my students more based on their GMMs

It was soooooo worth getting this happening straight away. Read more about the above techniques and MORE in Bianca’s super post about managing the mushy middle.

Making progress

Maybe I miss teaching maths as I feel compelled to use some mathematical terms and concepts in this post about how my (non-Maths) PBLs mentioned in the previous post, are progressing. Oh, and this is inspired by this video on dissociating learning from performance, linked to me by the wonderful Kelli McGraw (@kmcg2375) who constantly pushes my academic thinking, among others.

Anyway, I had to watch that video lots and lots and lots of times. What really hooked me was this notion of variability as aid to learning and transference, even if the performance gain (observable stuff we teachers measure as evidence of learning) is non-existent or slow. See folks, this is why I love Algebra! And in fact, that’s how Algebra should be taught, i.e. change those variables so students can see that the relationships expressed in an equation will yield different values as variables change. This is transference in number terms, literally.

I’m not going to pretend I understand the video completely. I don’t. What does spacing even means? I’m guessing interleaving means making connections. Interleaving vs blocking new things to be learned. whoa!

This is exactly how my PBLs are progressing. Variability. Interleaving vs blocking new things. Conditions are neither constant nor predictable (these terms are from the video, ok?).

Precisely because of how the Year 9 Digital Media Jedi Academy is set up, there is so much variability. I’ve got kids learning to write HTML code, writing ebooks, creating wikis, typography and critically analysing their process…yep, writing their applications to level up. And they’re excited about what they’re doing that invariably (haha) I have to boot them out when bell goes. Comments heard today: “I’ve done so much”, “I’ve learned so much”, “This is exciting”.  They’re collaborating, giving peer feedback and affirmations and best of all, learning how to help themselves.

Their applications to level up are done in Word, submitted to our virtual classroom (a Sharepoint site). I annotate these. Then it hit me that I had no idea of checking if they’ve really read these annotations – we’re talking individualised feedback here that took time and effort! Bianca Hewes (@biancaH80) to the rescue. More specifically, her post on feedback (a must read so go there, will you?) that mentioned the Goals, Medals, Missions framework. I told the students that they had to hunt down the medals and missions in my feedback. This had the added bonus of student feedback on my own annotations. It was clear that I was rather austere on the medals department. haha. I’ll fix that. I wish Sharepoint has notifications like edmodo.

My Year 10 PBL on the school purpose has taken twists and turns I could not have predicted. These kids are getting so engrossed on making sense of the school purpose and want to take the rest of the school with them. I’m actually rather flabbergasted though obviously proud of them taking ownership.  They designed surveys for staff and students and we had amazing discussions on the art of writing surveys and the challenges of collation…we were optimistic we’d get heaps of responses. Now they’re talking about making it a game and what do I know really of Game Design. Well, I’m learning along with them. Like my year 9s, I have to dismiss them a few times before they actually leave the room.

This post is long enough methinks. Anyway, I’m feeling good about the progress. Yeah, I still feel lost but I think I might get used to it and welcome it. That’s a good thing, right?

And just to end on the idea of abstraction: neither Bianca nor Kelli teach maths or computing; yet, see how I’ve abstracted from their work and applied to my context (steal like an artist – go on, check it out….interleaving, see?). This abstraction is Algebra IRL. really.

Walking the walk

I just completed a 2-week block at another school, this time cover for mostly Maths classes. Lessons were already planned by the teachers so technically, all I had to do was deliver them (if keen) or leave the kids to do the assigned work and make myself available….this is what casual teachers do, right?

After a week though, I found myself literally sick to the stomach because I knew I could do more. Here I was harping on about to “Make room”,  “Student reflection”, “Inquiry Learning (1)” , IL(2)  and “Playing with different teaching styles and approaches” and then not doing them. Ha!

I could have hidden behind the curtain of ‘I am just a casual teacher, blink and I’m gone’ but deep down, I felt that I had to walk the walk….my walk. The question was whether I could pull this off in a Maths classroom, with students I didn’t even know the names of?


The year 7s were learning about Data and Graphs; identifying, reading, creating, critique-ing… that order! I’ve taught this unit before and that’s how we’ve always done it…just like most Maths teachers I know. I only had 6 lessons with year 7s and 3 of those where gone in the first week; so I had 3 lessons left for something different to indulge my ‘walk the walk’ thingy.

Here’s my mini-PBL; it’s not great but does tick the boxes of PBL essential elements (via, bar the public audience. There’s a “focus on inquiry, voice and choice and significant content”, as per starting with PBL article (via Edutopia)…relative to the constraints voiced previously.

[click to enlarge]

Students were allowed to work alone, in pairs or in groups of 3. Students had a choice of presentation mode/tools. Students had a choice of graphs.

Investigations were prompted by a couple of Olympic-themed infographics and a video on what is a typical person which aimed to raise questions on samples and populations, in particular.

Musings – positives and negatives

Inquiry was a challenge. The students struggled with the list of questions, i.e. what were good questions to ask. My biggest concern here was that most of them aimed to please me, the teacher, to pick the right questions and answer them. What I really wanted them to do was list the first questions that came to mind, e.g. “What is this graph about?”, “Why did they use this type of graph?”, “Is this a population or representative sample?”, “Is the scale correct?”, etc. It took several instances to assure them that there were no right or wrong questions, as such, and that some questions were impossible to answer, e.g. such as if the sample size and profile were not given.

Timing was tight. Ideally, the students could have been given more guidance to look for more complex and diverse examples. I’m inclined to think that this would have been better at the start of the unit, i.e. I “wasted” the first 3 lessons doing direct instruction and socratic questioning with the whole class.

Presentations helped uncover misconceptions. This was gold! Students were also learning graphs in Science and were talking about the line of best fit and scatter plots. No wonder they were confused when I was teaching them line graphs the week before; some of them thought line graphs were connected scatter plot dots. This misconception came out when a couple of groups presented about line graphs as being bad because joining the dots was “a bad idea”. This misconception would have been practically impossible to uncover using the traditional method of teaching mentioned above because they would have had little opportunity to “make that mistake“.

Big picture approach helped put things in perspective. I’m a fan of big-picture teaching, (re: post on algebraic equations). This mini-PBL got students looking at different graphs all at once, not one-at-a-time as you would in traditional teaching. So when a student asked a fantastic question of how to represent 0.7 in a picture graph using a scale of 10, it allowed opportunities to discuss options such as using a different scale and (the most obvious they didn’t see it) – use a different type of graph….because they can.

This sacrificed Knowledge and Skills for Working Mathematically. This bugs me because I feel I have let the students down because we didn’t tick all the boxes in the syllabus document for Knowledge and Skills such as “using line graphs for continuous data only”. I am biased towards focusing on working mathematically, e.g. “generate questions from information displayed on graphs”, something I believe transcends usability beyond standardised tests and high school years.  Balancing these is a challenge most Maths teachers face. I made my choice and certainly hope that I didn’t do students a disservice.

So, in the end, I did walk the walk….and gained from it.

What’s your (teaching) style?

Today, one of my year 12 students asked if I taught all my classes using different methods.

Serendipity right there as I was thinking of blogging about the different teaching styles (the term pedagogy gags a bit) I’ve been using with 3 of my classes. In fact, I’ve blogged about all of them already:

Project-based Learning (PBL) – Year 12 Information Processes and Technology

Inquiry-based Learning – Year 11 Information Processes and Technology

Games-based Learning – Year 9 Information and Software Technology

Apart from PBL, I’m a newbie to the other two styles and totally loving the whole experience. It feels good to try different ways of teaching and expanding my pedagogical (gag) repertoire. I do believe a diversity in approach keeps me interested and ditto for the students. A win-win in my books.

I have no preference as such, as each approach has its strengths. I think what makes them work in my meagre experience is that each one is all about the learning, fostered through a regular dose of feedback (teacher-student, student-teacher, student-student). It is a community built on relationships built through constant connection. All approaches focus on the instructional core: student, teacher, content – and the interactions thereof.

I do not see myself as an innovative educator – that really is  not my aim. I daresay I am a learning (vs learned) teacher, with an eclectic approach to teaching and learning. Yep, that’s my style. What about you?

I like this “doodle” by Giulia Forsythe. Though I don’t claim to to pursue innovative pedagogy, there are some interesting points here methinks.


Is this Inquiry-based Learning?

One cannot have a conversation with Edna Sackson (@whatedsaid) and not be excited about the potential of Inquiry-based learning. Excited I am, for sure. Trouble is, I don’t know much about it really other than that learning is driven by inquiry.

So, that’s what I tried to do, ie. design a unit around a driving question (DQ). It had elements of Project-Based Learning (PBL). I borrowed ideas from Bianca Hewes (@BiancaH80) through her blog, PBL workshops and edmodo.

I found my year 11 Information Processes and Technology (IPT) students rather unmotivated. Filling in for another teacher for a few weeks, I did not have the luxury of getting to know them well enough to be confident in designing something engaging around their new topic Storing and Retrieving – a topic I personally found rather tedious. I thought, “If I can’t even enthuse myself, how on earth will I get these kids on board?

It was truly an inspired moment when I hit on the driving question of : “Can we trust the cloud?”

The task in a page - Can we trust the cloud?

Inquiry as context for learning

In just over 2 weeks, we studied our topic via the DQ: Can we trust the cloud?. The students went on to explore various aspects of cloud storage. Groups of 2 or 3 looked at several services: DropBox, iCloud, Google Drive and the internal Sharepoint-based intranet. They analysed the hardware and software involved as well as the issues relating to their chosen service provider. It was not surprising for them to conclude anyone’s personal data storage strategy should include more than one approach, ie have a variety of options such as portable hard disks, etc.

Ultimately, we covered everything in the syllabus and more besides. In fact, they also learned about the:

  • issues of working in groups
  • challenge of presenting in front of an audience
  • opportunities to teach and learn from each other
  • benefits of regularly reflecting on one’s work
  • benefits of regular feedback from the teacher as I checked in on their progress (I asked lots of guiding questions)
  • collaboration via the wiki
The wiki was another inspired move. None of them have ever contributed to one. So, I set up a sandbox version first, called About Me. I put my own entry as an example and got them to create their own pages. This allowed them to play with the Sharepoint wiki features as well as give me a quick way to get to know them. The lesson allocated to this “play time” was well worth the benefits. It was a good investment. In the end, the class had shared notes on the topic that each of them contributed to (granted in varying degrees of quality).
For a task that had no grade attached, I was pleasantly surprised and moved at the level of engagement. They worked; some harder than others but they all worked. Can they do better? For sure! I am so happy with and for them.
But my question remains, is this inquiry-based learning?
Is that question even important?