Thursday, January 31, 2019

Re-thinking Grouping

This morning I read an article condemning ability grouping (thanks Michael Fawcett for sharing it), and feel I need to comment. This article focuses on a very rigid form of grouping which I agree has been shown to be detrimental to learning. However this does not mean that we should abandon grouping, just that we should rethink it, as many NZ teachers already have.

The article focuses on a very rigid form of grouping which is much less common these days. Grouping needs to be very flexible and responsive and it should be needs-based. A child could be in one group today for work on a particular skill or strategy but in a different group tomorrow. In any one day they will be in a number of different groups and I have yet to visit a NZ primary class where learners sit permanently in ability groups.

Giving students agency so they they can opt into groups where they feel they have a need is very important. For some things there will be mixed-ability grouping and for others there will be small groups working on a particular area of need.

We also need a broader definition of ability. For example a group of students with a wide range of reading ages could all be working on using an index in a book, they don't need to all have the same book, they can choose their own from a selection that have indexes. Some could have been asked to join the group because the teacher has identified they have a need for this skill, others may have opted in to the group because they feel the need to brush up on this skill. Thus they are grouped for their ability on a particular skill at that moment in time. Tomorrow, or even later the same day they may be in another group, even for the same skill.

If we are personalising learning and having agentic learners there is still a place for ability grouping, just not in the way it has happened in the past. Learners should be identifying their learning goals and choosing groups based on what they need to achieve their goals.

So, in summary, it is not ability grouping we need to do away with, but rather narrowly-defined, rigid, unresponsive and totally teacher-decided ability grouping we need to move away from.

Friday, October 13, 2017


A couple of things sparked the writing of this blog post. The first was a colleague's comment about the quality of work being shared using  the Seesaw app. I personally love Seesaw, it is a great home-school communication tool and is very easy to use. It is the latter benefit that can also lead to a negative consequence. It is so easy to use that students can be tempted to share anything and everything without any thought about what or why they are sharing.

There are two problems with this. Firstly parents/whānau can be overwhelmed by the volume of items that are shared. If they are continually receiving items there is a danger they will be less enthusiastic about what they receive and less likely to respond. Therefore one of the benefits of Seesaw, which is that parents/whānau can easily see and like or comment on work, is likely to be lost. Many parents/whānau would find it difficult to be frequently responding to their child's journal entries. One solution to this is to limit the quantity of what is shared. There could be a daily or weekly limit for example or a per subject limit.

Another solution ties in with the second problem which, as mentioned above, is quality of the work being shared. This will involve discussions with students about what they are sharing and about criteria for  sharing. This does not mean taking agency away from learners, they can still make the choices about what they share, but base their choices on criteria such as links to their learning goals or sharing something they consider to be an example of their best work. These two criteria would not need to be both applied to the same piece of work. There could be work being shared, for example, that is an example of progress towards a learning goal.

Part of this solution would be a requirement to reflect on the piece of work. This reflection could, for example, state why they consider it to be an example of their best work, or the how it shows progress towards their goals and what their next steps might be.

This brings me to the other prompt for this post, an article on TeachThought: 20 Types of Learning Journals. This lists 20 different types of reflection learners can be doing. Encouraging students to use some of these on their Seesaw shares would be a great way to increase the quality of their posts and make shared items more meaningful to both the students and those at home.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Compelling Reason

I recently read a post from George Couros. If you don't already subscribe to his newsletters then I'd recommend you do, they don't take long to read and are inspiring and informative. This one resonated with me because it contained this reminder: "when you have a compelling reason, you can learn anything". There was also a delightful video, an advertisement for whisky but with a strong message about the power of purpose.

As educators we need to help learners find their purpose. That is the key that unlocks the door to learning and is the first step to learners taking control. With a strong purpose they will be driven to question, to inquire, to research and to become agentic learners.

How can you help your learners find their purpose?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ask Don't Tell.

I hear a lot of questions from teachers about how they can develop learner agency and also how to foster an inquiry disposition in students. On the flipside, and surprisingly sometimes from the same teachers, I hear questions along the lines of:
What should I call my reading groups?
Our big topic next term is change. What should I do around this?
We're doing inquiry next term, what are some topic ideas?

I find myself saying 3 words: "Ask the kids." and those who know me won't be surprised to hear that this is quickly followed (or sometimes preceded) by "What's your purpose?"

Before going further I'd like to say something about the teachers who are asking questions such as these. These teachers are learners (as are we all), they are asking questions that show they have a need to further develop their skills and understandings around learner agency and student inquiry and we should be supporting them on that journey.

Now let's look at those examples:

What should I call my reading groups?
Why are you giving them a name? How about supporting them to come up with something meaningful to them? How about having them get together and negotiate a name for themselves? Sure it will take a bit more class time but isn't 'Managing Self' a Key Competency you are trying to develop? Aren't things like being able to negotiate, make decisions and compromise, important skills that are best learned in authentic contexts? We won't develop agentic learners if we make all the decisions for them.

Our big topic next term is change. What should I do around this?
What's your purpose for having them learn about change?  Which aspect (s) of change are you wanting them to learn about? E.g. 'Change can be permanent or temporary' is quite different to 'living things change over time' or "coping with changes in our lives', 'changes to the environment can be be caused by inanimate things like wind and water or animate things like people, plants and animals' or 'we can change our minds based on new evidence'.  Does it matter what the context is so long as it meets the purpose? Why not share that purpose with them and ask them for some contexts that have meaning and relevance to them? How about giving them some provocations to stimulate their curiosity and seeing what questions arise?

We're doing inquiry next term, what are some topic ideas?
First up, you don't "do" inquiry. You use an inquiry approach or you inquire into a question, problem etc. I'd be asking what the purpose of the inquiry was? Once that is clear, Iook for some authentic contexts that you know are relevant to your learners. You could share some provocations to stimulate questions, then follow their lead into areas that meet the purpose but are relevant to them. Or straight out share the purpose with them and ask them to suggest some contexts.

So next time a teacher asks what they should name their maths group or what their inquiry topic should be, let's not jump in with an answer but instead support them to grow in their understanding of developing agentic learners with inquiring dispositions.

I'll just finish with this great sketchnote from the marvellous @sylviaduckworth.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Education for the Future

Thanks to Leigh Hyne's recent blog post  I viewed the video of an interview with the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher. The video is an hour long but worth watching as there are many interesting points raised that are relevant to New Zealand (and indeed worldwide) education.

Schleicher was asked (35:39) what was the most important thing a teacher could do to prepare students for their future?  His reply was to stop thinking about preparing students for jobs, jobs will look totally different in the future. In science, for example, we spend too much time on teaching content and too little time teaching students to design experiments and think like a scientist.

This fits really well with my views around the need for an inquiry approach and the use of authentic contexts for learning. Students need to do the work that would be done by those working in the discipline in the community, in science they need to do what scientists do, in art they need to do what artists do.

Schleicher went on to say that coding, for example, will look totally different when younger students leave school. This fits with my view that the coding itself is not the important part. The problem-solving and computational thinking will still be relevant, the ability to think logically, to break tasks down into parts and see patterns, to design solutions, to de-bug when things don't work and to re-design, these skills will still be useful and valuable. This is especially important to keep in mind as we consider the draft of the new Digital technologies area of the curriculum.

Schleicher believes that education systems need to have core values and everything that is in or added to the curriculum needs to be examined against those core values. This works at both a government level and an individual school level.

Schools in New Zealand have to develop their own school curriculum and their core values need to be a the heart of this. This is not always the case. Most schools have worked on developing these sets of core values as part of developing their vision and mission statements but there are still some that have not applied these when developing their school curriculum. Schools that have done this well, Te Kowhai Primary for example, have seen the benefits for their students

Schleicher also talked about early childhood education (49:34) and how formalisation of learning is doing more harm than good and that we need to let children play and socialise,  which proponents of play-based learning would be heartened to hear.

It was interesting to hear the question (51:47) from Mark Treadwell, a New Zealand educator, on how we overcome the lack of understanding around what is the difference between knowledge, an idea, a concept and a concept framework. There is a definite need to develop common understandings around what these terms mean as it impacts on both curriculum design and implementation.

Schleicher emphasised that we need to teach fewer things at greater depth, to get to the root of the discipline, to foster students' talents. Japan, for example took 30% of material out of their curriculum and it resulted in an increase in creative skills and creative problem solving. He  remarked on the tendency of schools to prioritise the urgent over the important. Just having more learning time does not equate to better outcomes (Pisa data shows a negative correlation).  He asserts that we need to help students find their passions, what they are good at, what is going to serve a social purpose.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Coding for their Future

You may have heard that the New Zealand Technology Curriculum has been revised to include two new strands: 'Computational thinking for digital technologies' and 'Designing and developing digital outcomes'. You may be wondering what this is all about, if you are a parent you may have some concerns about what this will mean for your child and if you're a teacher you may be wondering how you will fit this into your programme and why you would want to. Hopefully I have a few answers for you or at least some food for thought.

One question I've often heard asked is how we will fit this into an already busy curriculum. The Education Minister Nikki Kay, attempted to answer this in a segment on Q & A  What she could also have said was that digital technologies, coding and computational thinking don't need to be separate subjects that are shoe-horned into the curriculum. They will become a means to an end, not the end itself.

The 'Designing and Developing Digital Outcomes' area for example, involves having a knowledge of devices, apps and programs so that we can choose the best tool for the task. It has students critically analysing various digital technologies and making informed decisions about the best digital technology (or in some cases non-digital technology) to achieve the desired outcome.

In real life most of us make decisions about use of technology all the time. Will we watch that movie on Netflix, our DVD player, on our ipad or phone? If we need to do a presentation to a group of people will we use Powerpoint, Google Slides, Prezi, Powtoon, make a video or use plain old cards with handwritten notes?

Students will "work through an iterative process to design, develop, create, store, test and evaluate digital content that meets its purpose. They will recognise social and end-user considerations that are relevant when developing digital content." This sort of process can be applied in any curriculum area.

The 'Computational thinking for digital technologies' area is probably the one that is the scariest for newcomers to the world of coding and computational thinking but most people understand this area a lot better than they think.

Algorithms sound scary but I would say that nearly all of you use these in one form another every week. Have you ever used a recipe, read a set of instructions for kitset furniture, done a Google search, decided the best route to get from A to B? If so you've made use of an algorithm which is just a set of step-by-step instructions to efficiently carry out a task.

Coding itself has become so much easier for beginners with block coding programs like Scratch and Tynker enabling even five year olds to code. Hour of Code is designed to get young people coding and has more resources being added all the time, it's a great place to start. Many of these early coding apps like Tynker now include the ability to see what your code would look like in more advanced coding languages like Python and Java, which scaffolds transition into these languages.

Students can use these coding apps to create stories, artwork and puzzles. As they go they are problem-solving, developing persistence, resilience and a growth mindset, they are developing their maths and literacy skills in authentic contexts. They aren't so much learning to code as they are coding to learn.

There are now a plethora of robots available that students can easily program. The hardest part is deciding which one to get as we are now spoilt for choice. Just watch a student program a robot to go through a maze and you can't deny the maths and key competencies that are being developed.

Computational thinking might sound tricky but its what we use all the time when we solve problems or complete tasks and we use things like:
  • Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller parts
  • Pattern Recognition: Looking for patterns, similarities  and trends in data
  • Abstraction: Focusing on the important, relevant info, ignoring the irrelevant
When things go wrong we need to de-bug to find out where we went wrong and how to correct the mistake. Being able to logically work through problems is an essential skill.

Lack of devices is another issue I hear mentioned by teachers but it needn't stop you. There are many activities that can be done without any devices. Sure you are going to need some devices eventually but lack of them should not prevent you getting started.
In the Q & A segment the Minister was questioned about how we can prepare students for their future when we have no idea what that future will be. The following quotes sprang to mind:

"Our job as teachers is not to "prepare" kids for something; our job is to help kids learn to prepare themselves for anything."

"Your task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it." Antoine de Saint Exupéry

PLD for teachers and education for the community are going to be essential and the Government is promising funding for this. If effectively targeted, this funding could go a long way towards making sure all teachers, not just a few specialists, can implement these new areas in their classrooms. 

I've started compiling some resources to support this new strand, still a work in progress as details have just been released, but lots to get you started. To teachers I say give it go, start small if you want, but start. 

"Don’t shortchange the future, because of fear in the present." 

For those wanting to find out more you could attend one of the MoE consultation workshops or if you want ideas and resources for implementing this in your classroom I am facilitating a 2 day course on the new areas on Mon, August 14th and Mon, September 11th in HamiltonMore details or enrol here

The revised curriculum is still in draft form and you can have your say here

I'll finish with my favourite quote about technology:

"....Computers are not rescuing the school from a weak curriculum, any more than putting pianos in every classroom would rescue a flawed music program. Wonderful learning can occur without computers or even paper. But once the teachers and children are enfranchised as explorers, computers, like pianos, can serve as powerful amplifiers, extending the reach and depth of the learners."

Alan Kay 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

I'm a Genius!

Yes, it's true, I'm a genius! How do I know this? because Facebook told me so it must be true. Apparently my geniusness (my own word - because I'm a genius and allowed to make up words) is demonstrated in my ability to notice the missing number in this sequence and type it in the comments below. 

Or because I can think of a word that starts and ends with T, as apparently less than 10% of the population can do this. The thousands of people gleefully posting their word in the comments below are apparently also geniuses as are those who, like me, can find the number 1 in a sea of 7s or solve this puzzle that has the internet baffled. 

Once my geniusness has been confirmed I could of course post an "Amen" for the poor sick child or the animal that has been cruelly mistreated, because I wouldn't be so heartless as to scroll past without liking, sharing and commenting. Because everyone knows that God will only save the child or animal if I post to Facebook and the post gets over 5000 likes.

Or maybe I can win one of 500 BMWs or the 1000 Round the world trips in the competition by just liking and sharing the page, the one that was only created a few weeks ago. It is a shiny,new page so it must be legit, right?

Joking aside, I am pretty sure that all the above are just "like farming" or setting me up for some sort of scam. But over and over I see them in my feed because a friend has liked, commented, shared or copied and pasted. So it is working for the scammers.

Then there are the "copy and paste, don't share" posts". Thanks to Allanah King for sharing this article which confirmed for me the reasons why I never do this.

It's pretty simple to stop these scammers in their tracks. All we have to do is think for a minute before we like, share etc that post. Think about why they might be posting/asking you to do this and ask ourselves is it true/real? How can I find out? While you are at it apply the same questions to any "news" you see posted.


Cima da Conegliano, God the Father