Category Archives: Lesson Plans

Why Online Teaching is so Taxing!

Teachers who have been doing remote teaching over the last month or so report complete exhaustion. Not just because they needed to take time to re-design their curricula for remote platforms. Not just because they needed to record videos or re-purpose learning resources for an online platform. Not just because online assessment is a nightmare. But chiefly because of the exhaustion involved in conducting online lessons. And all this at a time when many teachers have to look after their own children and families, when they themselves are experiencing all the stress that we are all going through at this time.

So, why is online teaching itself so taxing? In the classroom you see your class for a set period of time, and you do what you can during the time you have with the class. Your energy goes into being present for your students, either in how you present content, or how you guide and shape their understanding of that content. You have to read the faces in front of you, notice who is beginning to goof off, who wants to ask a question, but needs encouragement, who has a puzzled look on their face, or who is clearly engaged in something else and needs re-directing. From the nods of understanding, or the expressions of sudden realization, you know when you can go on, or whether you need to try explaining something in a different way. You can judge whether or how long to wait after asking a question, or whether to rephrase it better. Face to face interactions require a great deal of work, and it can be exhausting in itself. Teachers suffer a great deal of cognitive overload. You have to keep not only the content you are teaching in mind, but also all the questions around how best to teach it. It is exhausting! But bells ring, and the day has an end. As exhausting as ordinary teaching may be, the week ends, and eventually the term ends. I have always thought that the length of a term is designed precisely to wring the most work out of students and teachers without completely destroying them in the process.

But online work demands a different level of presence. To be digitally present is to be available long beyond any scheduled lesson, worrying about those who never showed up to any online check-in, or who have missed a submission deadline. Teachers online don’t receive absence notes from parents explaining that a student is down with something, or will be away for a few days, but will catch up the work. Often all we have online is a silence that begins to prey on the mind. As emails expressing concern over a student missing in action go unanswered and days become weeks, the mind begins to invent all sorts of explanations, fears of all sorts and grieving for lost time and contact. Teachers are concerned about reaching all their students. But during a lock-down, if emails go unanswered, this concern can become all consuming!

Furthermore, students check-in at all hours of the day and night, with queries and concerns. I had one student ask a question at 2 am in the morning. There is far less of a switch-off point. If you are expecting students to work asynchronously, you more or less have to expect to maintain an asynchronous digital presence yourself. You may have announced that you will be keeping office hours, but if students have been missing in action, when they do pop up at an ungodly hour, it is hard not to respond immediately.

When you are teaching synchronously, reading the room is not easy, either. All the usual cues are largely missing. Facial expression and body language are harder to read, and a great deal more effort needs to go into understanding who wants, or needs to speak. Even managing conversations is more difficult with the false starts and technical glitches that bedevil meetings on Zoom, or whatever platform you are using. As someone who finds it difficult enough to read social cues under normal circumstances, learning how to do it all over again online is a nightmare!

All of these things make teaching remotely particularly taxing intellectually and emotionally. The cognitive load is much higher than in face to face teaching. It seems to me that the only way to cope with this added stress is firstly to recognise it, and secondly to begin to re-align our expectations and curriculum planning to accommodate this new reality. Most syllabi stress a relentless loading of content, breadth not depth has always been the name of the game. School administrators, districts and examination boards need to reassure teachers that the same coverage of content will not be expected during this period. Educational aims can still be met, but expectations around curriculum content needs revision. Is there really a need to study 18 set poems, perhaps covering 12 meets the same aims!? Perhaps one major piece of writing can be assessed rather than three? Perhaps some units of study can be left out, and more time spent on the remaining units?

We all need to go easier on ourselves, or teachers will be facing major burnout by the end of the school year!



Developing Tools to Help Students Construct Meaning in Computer Skills

As a teacher of computing applications I have found that the area my students struggle with the most is creating and using spreadsheet formulae and database queries. That is to say they struggle most where they have to apply mathematical formulae, which are by nature abstract, to a concrete task such as applying a 10% discount if certain conditions pertain. The ability to move seamlessly between abstract and concrete is not something all students possess. Piaget described the movement between concrete and formal operational thinking as a maturational process, with children only becoming capable of abstract thought at around 12 years of age. It is also thought that abstract thinking develops into adulthood as individuals gain more experience with it. This suggests that students need extensive scaffolding to help abstract thinking skills develop. It is also clear that it is difficult to generalise concepts across different contexts generally.

I have looked at the Semantic Wave Theory previously on this blog (eg. Maton, 2014), a framework drawn from Legitimation Code Theory, which shows how the movement between the abstract and highly condensed to the concrete, contextualised and simple can be used as a tool to show how meaning is being unpacked and re-packed within the classroom. Researchers have shown how successful teaching and learning depends on creating repeated movements between the two, describing semantic profiles.

The diagram above illustrates various semantic profiles, which will be instantly recognisable to any teacher. The high semantic flatline is when all discourse in the classroom remains at a general and abstract, very theoretical level. The low semantic flatline is when discourse is simple and practical. Clearly what is needed over time is movement between abstract and concrete, complex and simple, a wave-like graph with greater semantic range. Teachers need to help students understand complex, abstract ideas by unpacking the concepts using concrete examples, personal experience and metaphors. Students also need to learn how to repackage their understanding in more abstract academic language in their own words, and teachers need to carefully scaffold, this process.

Understanding semantic waves, helps to understand how best to scaffold spreadsheet formulae and database queries by finding strategies to strengthen and weaken semantic gravity and density as it is called, in other words to scaffold movement up or down the semantic wave. To do this requires an understanding of the relative strengths of semantic gravity and density in various computing applications. I have to say that this is in itself not an easy task. It seems to me that what appears to be a concrete, practical task for an experienced practitioner, often appears abstract and complex for the novice. This is perhaps just another way of saying that as we get used to traversing the gap between abstract and concrete we get better at doing it, and cease to notice it, or struggle with it. We operationalise abstract formulae without a second thought and it seems like a simple, concrete task to us. We need to try and see it from the perspective of the novice. The novice needs to bring together an understanding of what the computer needs to do expressed in plain language, the mathematical or logical language of the problem and the syntax of the application or programming language. And this process needs very careful scaffolding and support.

I have very recently come across a cognitive tool called the Abstraction Transition Taxonomy (Cutts et al, 2012). The illustration below comes from the paper cited and demonstrates one way of visualising the processes involved in coding a computer program, or indeed an excel spreadsheet.

This design process helps bridge the gap between understanding a problem and its solution and translating that into a working program which then needs to be debugged and checked to see if it does what it is supposed to do. The key stage is the story boarding in the middle. I like to think of the steps shown above as following the following stages:

  • Plain Language: Think about the problem and work through a solution in your mind
  • Maths/Logic: Build in any mathematical or logical operators into your solution
  • Application Syntax: Implement your solution using the particular syntax of the app or programming language you are using.

For example:

  • If a class has collected the most money in the school, they get the day off school.
  • If money collected = most money, then day = day off, else day = normal school
  • =IF(cell=max(range);”Day Off”;”normal school”) [in an Excel spreadsheet]

It is tempting to see each of these levels (plain language, maths/logic, app syntax) as discrete strengths of semantic gravity, moving from plain language (strong semantic gravity) to maths/logic (weak semantic gravity) and then back to app syntax (strong semantic gravity). This would describe a wave much like the graph shown below. This is a useful way to conceive of the shifts in levels of abstraction while using a computer to solve a problem.

Over the years teaching spreadsheets, databases and coding, I have come to develop a routine of modelling how to go about using computers to solve problems which follows the three steps enumerated above. It is summarised as the ELS method:

  • State the problem and solution in plain English
  • Plug in any mathematical or Logical operators
  • Enter it using the particular Syntax of whatever application you are using

This helps students, I think, by giving them a process to follow and helps move up and down the semantic range, but my grade 8s and 9s still struggle to apply it.

Although the three step process helps build in a movement up and down the semantic range, it is not enough. Each step represents a semantic range in its own right, for the novice at any rate. When stating a problem’s solution in plain language, one needs to hold in mind the contextual parameters of the problem and an ideational, abstraction of the solution in one’s mind. When working through the mathematical and logical expression of the solution, one needs to continually jump back to the context of the problem and forth to the emerging formula. When translating this formula into the particular syntax of the application you are using, also requires rapid jumps back and forth up the spectrum between weak and strong semantic gravity. Although the curve above may well describe the overall movement of meaning in the task, it seems to me to be made up of rapid oscillations back and forth between two states, abstract and concrete, a kind of quantum wave, if you like, as the student superimposes an abstract solution on top of a concrete problem’s solution. I believe it is this which makes it particularly difficult for novice programmers and spreadsheet/database creators to navigate the coding of a solution. More experienced programmers handle these shifts with ease.

How and Why Questions help move up and down the semantic range

When using the ELS method in a whole class situation I model the mental process of thinking through the task very closely, drawing on student contributions. But getting students to work in pairs is also very necessary as it forces them to voice their mental processes and this helps strengthen and weaken semantic gravity. If you are explaining why you think the formula should be this rather than that, you are effectively making jumps up and down the semantic range because you are dealing with why questions, which tend to raise the level of abstraction, and with how questions which help concretise your solution. When you try something and it doesn’t work, having to discuss possible reasons with a peer helps do the same.


Cutts et al., 2012. The abstraction transition taxonomy: developing desired learning outcomes through the lens of situated cognition. In Proceedings of the ninth annual international conference on International computing education research. ACM, pp. 63–70. Available at:

Maton, Karl. (2014). A TALL order?: Legitimation Code Theory for academic language and learning. Journal of Academic Language and Learning. 8. 34-48.



Autonomy Tours in The Classroom

There is an essential dichotomy in education between knowledge for knowledge sake, and knowledge for other purposes, such as vocation. This division of purpose describes how knowledge in any field is positioned relative to other fields of knowledge. If I am studying Mathematics, for example, am I studying it to further my career as an engineer, or am I learning it for its own sake? This idea conveys a sense of the relative autonomy or heteronomity of knowledge. In the classroom students will often question why they are learning something. Will they really need to know trigonometry in their future lives? Why does the school not recognise their extensive and autonomous knowledge of Pokemon? Why study Shakespeare? Why study Latin?

I have written previously about semantic waves in the classroom. Semantic waves are an idea generated by Legitimation Code Theory – a perspective drawn from the ideas of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu, authored by Karl Maton, and describes how ideas range from abstract to concrete (semantic gravity) and from simple to complex (semantic density). Knowledge building depends upon the strengthening and weakening of semantic gravity and semantic density. In this article I would like to look at another idea taken from Legitimation Code Theory which I believe has relevance for classroom teachers – the idea of autonomy tours (Maton & Howard, 2018).

I apologize for the highly academic discussion which follows. It is necessary I am afraid. The discussion is somewhat complex, but the idea behind it makes instant sense, I think, to any teacher and speaks directly to how we teach. How do we tie together different types of knowledge students are exposed to or bring into the classroom from outside? We are tasked with teaching a curriculum, but we also know that we need to leverage what students already know, or what they are learning in other subjects, and that we need to prepare our students for using what we are teaching them to solve problems or get ahead in life. But to give students useful cognitive tools we need to give them access to the rigorous and fairly insulated positions within the disciplines we teach. If we teach Maths we need to teach Maths properly, not just as a tool to help kids balance their budgets. We need to teach our subjects for their own values and worth (autonomy) rather than just as slaves to other purposes (heteronomity). But we cannot be blind to other purposes either.

In Legitimation Code Theory the notion of autonomy is expressed as a matrix describing the relative Positional and Relational Autonomy of any constituent (idea, actor, etc). What does this mean?

Positional Autonomy (PA) (the vertical axis) refers to how a constituent is positioned relative to a field. For example if the field is the study of History and you are studying the Russian Revolution, looking at the railway networks in Russia, this constitutes knowledge that has weak PA because it is not strongly related to the discipline of History. Looking at reports of debates inside the Smolny Institute might be considered as having strong PA because it is directly positioned as historical knowledge.

Relational Autonomy (RA), (the horizontal axis) on the other hand refers to how constituents of a field are related to other contexts or fields. This speaks to the question of the aim or purpose. For example, if my aim for looking at railway networks is to further my understanding of how revolutionary ideas were carried across Russia then it has strong RA towards the field, but if it is to do some historical train spotting it has weak RA.

Both PA and RA form a spectrum with gradations, varying from Strong Positional Autonomy (PA+) to Weak Positional Autonomy (PA-) and strong Relational Autonomy (RA+) to weak Relational Autonomy (RA-) as seen in the table above.

Describing these polarities as a matrix allows us to describe four distinct autonomy codes.

The Sovereign Code (PA+, RA+) describes when status is given to strongly insulated positions and purposes. Eg. using Historical knowledge to teach History. This is teaching the curriculum to learn the curriculum.

The Exotic Code (PA-, RA-) describes weakly insulated positions and purposes. Knowledge outside a discipline is used for purposes other than pursuing that discipline. Eg. discussing the rugby in a History class. It has nothing to do with the curriculum and is not being used to illuminate what is being studied in any way. 

The Introjected Code (PA-, RA+) also called the Roman Code describes knowledge from other positions being used for the purpose of pursuing aims within that discipline. Eg. using Geographical knowledge to teach History. Although not directly part of the curriculum, it is being studied to help understand an aspect of that curriculum better.

The Projected Code (PA+, RA-) also called the Trojan Code describes using insulated knowledge for other purposes, Eg. using historical knowledge for another purpose, telling a joke or making a point about modern parallels. Curriculum is being used for another purpose which lies outside the curriculum.

We have had to wade through quite a technical explanation above, but I hope to show now how this speaks to classroom practice. Learning which stays in one code risks never having any relevance to building knowledge. One of the greatest weaknesses in our education system is that students can display knowledge of something they have learned, but never be able to use that knowledge in different contexts, or to see the relevance in one discipline of what they have learned in another. Worst of all it is utterly divorced from their real lives. There is no knowledge building between disciplines and so students are being robbed of the ability to apply their knowledge in different contexts and for different purposes.

An understanding of the autonomy codes, I believe, helps a teacher to understand how they need to shift between the codes to maximise knowledge building practices.  The Sovereign Code represents the target of knowledge, but if students already grasp the concepts then staying in the Sovereign Code represents boredom and monotony, and if they do not understand the concepts then there is little opportunity to grasp them being offered. Staying in one code represents severe limitations on any course of study.

For most students the only field available to help leverage academic knowledge comes from every day knowledge (the exotic code). Teachers who do not range out into other fields to help students understand are missing an opportunity. Most classrooms see frequent journeys into the exotic code as the teacher tries to make material accessible. As a schoolboy in the sixties and seventies much of my education reflected a one way trip out of the sovereign code and into the exotic code. We might have been sitting in a Maths class, but all someone had to do was say, “What did you think of the rugby on Saturday, sir?” and all thoughts of Maths went out the window and the rest of the lesson revolved around poor ball handling and who should be selected to play against the All Blacks! However, trips into the exotic code are vital for anchoring understanding. Teachers often, quite legitimately, use knowledge of unrelated things to help explain an idea or concept they are teaching. Let us say a teacher is teaching a topic around international trade. Because students have little or no knowledge of trade between nations, the teacher might well use an analogy of how kids trade Pokemon cards, and bring that idea back to the context of the lesson. Without this trip into the exotic the concept might never have been understood. The key of course is the ability of the teacher to bring the discussion back to the point of the lesson, rather than getting stuck on the exotic and never returning. A return trip is needed between the codes, bringing the lesson back on point.

Equally, the ability to tie knowledge across different disciplines is crucial to building worthwhile knowledge. Students will often use Mathematical knowledge in a Science class, graphing data, for example. This represents inter-disciplinary knowledge building. Geography often presents knowledge relevant for the study of History, and so on. These return trips run between the Introjected and Sovereign Codes. If students are given a sense of how they might be able to apply the knowledge they are learning in other contexts, then we have journeys between the Sovereign and Projected Codes.

Perhaps most powerfully of all, however, is the notion of an Autonomy Tour, in which the teacher will lead a class from one code, through another or more codes and return to where they began. What is powerful about this is the idea that knowledge is being linked and applied in different contexts and for different purposes. Modelling such a tour teaches students how to build knowledge across different contexts and how to apply what they have learned in new contexts. The idea of the Autonomy Tour offers a powerful way of analysing what goes on in the classroom, but also describes virtuous practice. As classroom teachers it is vital for us to think about how we use our pedagogical approaches to maximise the benefits of knowledge building and plan our lessons to help students make sense of what we are teaching them.


Maton, Karl & Howard, Sarah. (2018). Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building. LCT Centre Occasional Paper. 1.


Five Apps that Support Group Work in the Classroom

Constructivist Learning Theory emphasises the value of Group Work in the Classroom. As Vygotsky has highlighted, learning is first social before it becomes internalised. In other words the more opportunities students have to discuss and work through any content, the greater the opportunity to internalise that content. And yet many students have a hatred of group work. Learning to work with other people is not easy. Those with a healthy work ethic often do not know how to handle interactions with those who have less of a motivation to finish a task. Those who are used to achieving high marks for their individual assignments often feel resentful towards those who who turn in work they consider drags them down. Should they just take over and do all the work themselves, or do they accept peer contributions which they consider sub-standard? Others in the group may be resentful of those who try to take over, or who come across as bossy or exacting. And yet, more than ever, learning to work together and think interdependently is considered a crucial and employable skill.

Are there any digital applications which can help quieten the choppy Group Work waters? Here are five suggestions.

1. Google Docs

Google Docs provide unparalleled functionality for facilitating collaborative text authoring. A document can be shared with all members of the group, and the teacher, and then all who have been given editing rights can simultaneously work on the document. All changes are saved automatically. There is an online chat facility, and authors can leave comments and suggest edits. One of the greatest limitations on collaboration has always been the difficulties around sharing a document and writing one up. One member of the group often had to volunteer to do the “write up”. Google docs allows for this workload to be shared.

Teachers can carefully scaffold tasks within a Google doc and then share the document with a group so that the steps to be taken are highlighted, and strategies which might be deployed to afford collaborative thinking are suggested. In the graphic, the teacher is suggesting that de Bono Thinking Hats might help the group explore explore the topic though parallel thinking. Teachers can comment at any stage during the authoring process much as teachers circulating in a classroom can eavesdrop and intervene where necessary to get a group back on track. This allows teachers to  continue scaffolding learning in class, and outside class while students are authoring their write up.

These affordances for collaborative authoring and scaffolding make Google docs one of the most valuable educational tools to emerge in recent years. Students are able to use Google docs both while in group discussion, and for after-school homework.

2. is a web-based tool, with limited free and paid options. It allows users to set up a mind-map board which groups discussing a topic can use to create mind maps and save these as a jpeg, png or even html, which can be downloaded and shared. Upgrading to paid versions allows users to share a mind-map which can then be used for follow-up tasks.

One of the limitations of any paper based mind-map is how to share it, if the ideas are needed for follow-up action. To my mind, mind mapping tools offer the key affordance of guiding discussion around how ideas fit together. It forces students to address issues such as where does this idea fit? This helps sharpen an argument. allows grid, tree and bubble layouts. You can insert files only with an upgraded paid version, but the free version does allow links, so students can use the mind map to record useful links.

Some way of recording a discussion in a form which can later be shared is invaluable, but mind maps are especially valuable because they force students to simultaneously organise their thoughts.

3. Padlet

Padlet is a web-based tool which has free and paid options. The free version allows up to four walls. On a wall you can add files, voice and video recordings, links searched from within Google, text and doodles. You can share the wall with other users, each with authoring rights, or share a link, or wall saved as pdf or image.

The chief affordance to my mind is the facility for co-authors to add voice or video messages to the wall. This provides a superb tool for a group to collect resources and leave commentary both while planning a project, and when leaving a report back, with group members recording commentary on different aspects of a topic.

A teacher can set up a topic and invite students to co-author a document, thus setting up a group, and providing impetus sources if required, or groups can set up their own walls and share with each other informally, or with the teacher, formally. Walls have different themes and templates which can be applied. A wall can be deleted when it is no longer needed.

4. Kahoot!

Kahoot! is a tool which allows students to create quizzes or games or discussion boards which they can then share with the rest of the class. This is a great end product which encourages a group to research a topic, master the content and share with the class in the form of a quiz. Students find Kahoots engaging to create and to consume. This provides one means a teacher can use to ensure that the end product is itself engaging and encourages the group to take care in its creation.

Thinking of suitable questions to ask the rest of the class is a great way to get students to dig down deeper into a topic than they might otherwise have done so. The competitive nature of the quizzes also seems to encourage students to put in greater effort.

5. Lino

Lino is a sticky note web-based application which allows multiple users to post sticky notes on a topic. Users can post files, links to videos or images on an electronic cork-board. This allows for group-based brainstorming. It is a very versatile tool in that it can be used by a group or whole class and used for multiple purposes from group discussion through to presentation and feedback or reflection.

I like to use it as a reflection tool for students to post final comments on a topic after group-based feedback presentations have been made. It is quick and visual  and allows for a rapid round-up of reflections or comments and makes for a good way to sign off on a topic.

For a teacher it is a good way to spot any comments which reveal need for further action. Maybe some aspect of the topic needs to be picked up on at a later stage, or could do with further exploration.

This list of tools is by no means exhaustive. There may be better examples of applications with improved functionality. All of these tools, however, represent different ways in which collaborative group-based work can be usefully supported and enhanced. Please use the comments to suggest other tools, or share how you are using these tools.








Using Algorithmic Thinking to Teach Writing

The gains being made by Artificial Intelligence are truly impressive, but we may not be at the stage where a robot can out-write Shakespeare. And yet I do believe that we can use algorithmic thinking to teach students to become better writers. One of the bug-bears for many students over the years has undoubtedly been the lack of explicit instruction in how to write. The dominant pedagogy has been to give students plenty of opportunity to practice creative writing, and to attempt to mold improvement through feedback – often woefully inadequate feedback.

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Scoboco at It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

And yet writing can clearly be taught. At the very least students should be made aware of the overall structure of any piece of writing: how to set out a clear thesis statement and develop ideas in successive paragraphs which develop topic sentences, fleshing each idea out with anecdote, fact or quotation. If they are practising these skills quite explicitly their practice is focused and directed, it is far more likely to bear fruit.

I have found, over the years, however, that no amount of scaffolding will make this process easy to implement in whole class instruction. Most students can use conceptual maps to plan a sequence of ideas which support a thesis, but really struggle when it comes to developing these ideas in individual paragraphs. For some this process appears to come naturally. They effortlessly weave together anecdotes and observations to illuminate their ideas. Others appear incapable of marrying abstract ideas to concrete details, which is really what is at stake here.

I had a brain-wave the other day in a coding class. Could the kind of thinking used in coding (algorithmic thinking) not be employed to help bridge the seeming chasm between abstract and concrete? Algorithms, after all are sets of instructions which a machine can follow – a blue-print for successful practice. Maybe, for those who seemed to lack a muse, a blue-print was exactly what was required. And maybe, after following an algorithm for a while, the patterns and habits might stick.

I started by getting the whole class to generate a set of ideas and sub-points using a graphic organiser. We then organised these ideas into a logical sequence so that an argument was constructed. I put these ideas on a Google doc which I then shared with the class on Google Classroom so that each student had their own copy. The class then broke into groups and had to find anecdotes, facts, details or quotations. These were written out on cards and shuffled into a pile. Students were then told to start writing, using the logically sequenced outline we had developed. As they wrote each paragraph they had to come to the front of the class, dig in the pile and try to find at least one anecdote, fact or quote to use in that paragraph. When they had finished they returned it to the pile.

Individual essays were thus unique. The same anecdote could be used to support or refute an idea. We then shared some of these sequences in essays and discussed how they had been used to support the thesis statement. My follow-up, next term, will be to get students to select ideas from a pile and match these to the developing details so that each essay has a different sequencing structure.


Making Thinking Visible – Mind Mapping on your Interactive White Board

Whenever a class is engaged in a heated discussion, generating ideas that you want to refer back to, it is a good idea to record the thoughts that get flung out, so that they do not get neglected at a later stage. Old-fashioned teachers used to use flip-charts, but the digital teacher has new tools available.

Mindmeister is an easy to use online mind mapping platform which allows you to create and share conceptual diagrams. The free version allows you to generate a side-show (Prezi style) but not to download this as a Powerpoint or other format. The free version only allows you to download as a Word outline, but you can do a screenshot and paste into Paint to create an image file. You can also share to Social Media, or copy a link.

Mind maps are created by starting with a title and adding topics and sub-topics using the tab key. You can customize the theme applied. It is fairly intuitive to learn.

I have found that it allows me to collate student contributions to a class discussion in a very tangible way on the Interactive White Board, grouping ideas and pulling together discussion threads. At the end of the lesson I take a screenshot and create an image file I can post on my Google Classroom as a record of what was discussed, and as a trigger for further work.




The Dialogic Wave – A New Pedagogy?

One of the most toxic ideas in Education in the last thirty years is the whole notion that teachers should not teach. In South Africa this has led to a vast dereliction of duty as teachers became styled as facilitators and were made to feel somewhat guilty for teaching. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting in any way that Education is all about teaching, it is also about learning. Teaching and learning form two sides of a single coin. I am not suggesting that teachers should not facilitate learning either. Of course they need to, but what I am saying is that there is a time and a place for teachers to teach! I am also suggesting that learning depends upon that!

As learning theories have shifted towards Constructivist notions that learning requires the active construction of knowledge by the learner rather than some kind of mysterious transmission from the mouth of a teacher to the mind of the student, so has teaching come to be viewed rather suspiciously. And yet the two are not logically connected. The fact that to learn something I need to put ideas together in my own mind and build structures of knowledge that are unique to myself is not in question. The old notion that learning was like filling up a bucket by pouring ideas in does not stand up at all. I cannot understand anything until I have integrated it with other knowledge structures in my head. Meaning is therefore somewhat subjective. But this does not mean that knowledge is somehow independent of an external reality, or divorced from the understandings of others.

To my mind one of the clearest statements of the interrelationship between teaching and learning comes from the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary critic who developed the idea of Dialogism. All language has both centripetal and centrifugal forces acting upon it. When we speak about a horse, for example, we probably both agree on a set of meanings encapsulated in that word. These centripetal forces allow us to communicate meaningfully and for common understandings to emerge. However, it is very unlikely that we both have exactly the same image in mind. You might imagine an Arab stallion, while I may have more of a Shetland pony in mind. These centrifugal forces can sometimes create quite serious miscommunications. Because our experiences of the world have been different the meanings and understandings that we attach to words is undoubtedly different. Bakhtin described these forces in terms of a dialogism. Common understandings represent a Monologism of say the academy, received wisdom, the teacher, the voices of power. Our diverse individual understandings represent a dialogic discourse, the power of voice. Education of course may be seen as a process of interweaving between these forces. Without the monologic voice no understanding is possible, but equally learning depends upon the dialogic voices of individual minds. the richest experiences emerge from the meeting of minds. We learn socially and what is in our heads is by no means ours alone, it is what results from a dialogism.

This conceptualization speaks eloquently to the idea that learning requires an element of teaching. I have no direct experience of quantum physics. Not even remotely! If I am to have any knowledge of the subject I need to be told it, the concepts and ideas behind quantum physics need to be explained to me . As I hear the explanation I desperately try to relate it to things that I can understand and might come to a somewhat idiosyncratic understanding heavily dependent on metaphor and whatever I can remember of school-boy Science lessons. Should I engage in more prolonged and systematic study I will start to understand ideas which will allow me to understand quantum physics better. My understandings will change as I construct more insightful schemas in my mind, and my understanding over time will correlate much better with the understanding of real physicists. This resolution between the monologic and dialogic will be instantly comprehensible to anyone who has ever tried to learn anything. I may come to an understanding of very simple things through experience, but complex and abstract ideas are not going to bubble out of my own experiential knowledge. I will need to be taught things!

The schooling curriculum largely consists of rather abstract knowledge atomised into subject disciplines, each with their own procedures and ways of legitimizing knowledge. As attractive and Romantic an idea it might be to imagine that the fresh and unschooled view has primacy, the reason we engage in the educational process is to gain the knowledge and understanding of a practitioner in whatever field we are studying. My experience and voice has value, but ultimately if I want to be a quantum physicist I am going to need to try to understand what more experienced others know. Even if I am self schooled, the only way I can learn anything meaningful is by engaging with the ideas of experts through the pages of books, or increasingly these days webinars and YouTube videos!

But this is not to say that the knowledge I gain is not constructed in my own head and remains somewhat idiosyncratic. Your understanding of Bakhtin, for example, and the uses you put it to might be quite different from mine. But nevertheless we both need to have read Bakhtin in some form or other, or had his ideas explained to us by someone. This process is what I mean by teaching. Any learning either of us has done on the subject stems from this initial teaching. Without it we would have no understanding at all. Learning is thus predicated on teaching. Even Discovery learning as a pedagogy is somewhat of a misnomer. The teaching is simply happening in another form, most commonly from books.

Of course explanation alone is worthless. You could explain quantum physics to me all day, and without some kind of useful prior knowledge, foundational knowledge, none of it will stick. I am sure we have all experienced someone trying to explain something to us that was simply so beyond all our knowledge as to be gobbledygook! What experienced teachers are really good at is explaining things and then helping students go through the process of assimilating and integrating this knowledge into new schemas, scaffolding their construction of new knowledge through carefully chosen activities and exercises. Dialogic student voices are listened to and shaped towards more mature understandings. Lessons often consist of some form of explanation, followed by tasks designed to help students take that knowledge on board and make it their own. The best lessons often revolve around students sharing their discoveries and changing understandings. But without the teaching input, no matter how brief, or in what form it is delivered, all that Constructivist learning is impossible.

In the last few posts on this blog I have used a theoretical tool called Semantic Waves to discuss how technology is used in the classroom. The tool comes from a theoretical approach called Legitimation Code Theory, based on the work of Basil Bernstein, Pierre Bourdieu and Karl Maton. Semantic Waves trace the strengthening and weakening of semantic gravity (how abstract or concrete an idea is) and density (how simple or complex). Research into semantic waves in the classroom seems to suggest that good teaching and learning is dependent upon the range and frequency of these movements. Put simply, good teachers move between abstract and concrete, and between complex and simple ideas all the time, and give students opportunities to do the same. Movement needs to be in both directions. Abstract, complex ideas need to be unpacked, made more concrete and simple to understand, and students need to learn how to take concrete or simple ideas and tease out more abstract, complex, more academic understandings of whatever they are looking at.

Poor learning opportunities often coincide with flatlines, either where the lesson remains too abstract, or too concrete, never moving between the two.

I first came across this approach in my studies, as a tool for understanding what happens, or doesn’t happen in classrooms, but I have found that semantic waves are a very useful pedagogical approach as well. My lessons have always pivoted around instructional and exploratory moments (monologic and dialogic turns), but being consciously aware of the semantic gravity and density of any lesson turns out to be extremely useful. What I discovered by analysing the content of my own lessons was that while I was pretty good at explaining things, using metaphor or examples to help students understand concepts, not all my tasks, though designed to explore student voices, were designed to increase the complexity or abstraction of the ideas behind the lesson. It is easy to assume that simply because you are giving students an opportunity to voice their own understandings and explore them, that it will always lead to a more academic or rigorous understanding. Perhaps it is because I am an English teacher, and in teaching literature understanding is paramount. We read to understand the poem or novel and voice our reactions and opinions to it. That is often struggle enough!

When teaching writing, however, my concerns very much aligned with the upward movement of the semantic wave, trying to teach students how to use their own experiences and draw out thematic treatments to improve their writing. But when I thought about how I was teaching literature I realised that I was not paying enough attention to scaffolding how students take the text and draw out the themes and concerns of the work. This was something I needed to do much more consciously. I had been a little taken in by the warm fuzzy glow of having students come to terms with themes, exploring it in their own voice. In a sense I had been too caught up in the sense of completing the dialogic, and had not paid enough attention to the semantics.

If we wish to transform our educational system and move away from a reliance on the regurgitation of understanding towards teaching students how to create meaning, which is surely what critical thinking is all about, we need to be much more conscious of how students construct abstract and complex ideas. This concern needs to be built into our pedagogical DNA. Our teaching cannot just be dialogic, it must also be uplifting.


Learn to Code Online – Making Waves with Code Combat

I do not usually review any platforms or tools which come with a cost, but Code Combat offers a free Introductory Unit which can be used as a stand-alone unit of work so I will set my scruples aside! My school has purchased a Code Combat license which includes 11 Units of work in either Python or JavaScript with some web development units using HTML and CSS. The platform has students create games by typing in code, and progressing from one level to another once they have completed a previous level. Each unit varies in length from about an hour to complete to several hours of work. The units introduce basic programming concepts such as For loops, While loops, nested loops and so on. Concepts are introduced incrementally and learning can be very rapid. I use it for my grade 8 & 9 Computer Skills classes. A solid diet of Code Combat is not a very good idea, so I intersperse it through the year with applications and information literacy assignments.

The platform is generally excellent, but there are a few issues which need to be taken into account when implementing it as a coding platform. You will note that I am not considering the wider question of whether to offer coding to all students. To my mind it is crucial that all students get some exposure to coding, not necessarily because everyone will be coding in their jobs, but because I believe everyone needs an understanding of how coding works, and because I think it helps develop problem solving skills generally! The command line interface, rather than the more usual drag and drop “Scratch” style interface helps develop skills of accuracy and precision.

The issue that I want to address is how the platform can be used pedagogically, because I believe it cannot simply be used on its own. The teacher cannot simply point students in the direction of the platform and walk away! I want to draw on Semantic Wave theory, which I have discussed in a YouTube video, to demonstrate what I mean. To recap, teaching and learning is crucially about the deconstruction and reconstruction of meaning (semantics). Teachers help students to unpack ideas, helping them understand complex or abstract ideas using metaphors, examples and everyday language so that they can understand it in their own terms. Teachers then help students to take these raw, more experiential, concrete or simple ideas and reformulate them in more academic understandings. An example would be when a teacher models the unpacking of a work of literature, exploring the themes and imagery of a Shakespearean play and  then scaffolding a student’s writing so that they can take incidents from the play and tease out the thematic concerns in a coherent literary essay. Knowledge is deconstructed and reconstructed.

This movement between abstract and complex and concrete and simple, and hopefully back again is described in the research literature as a semantic wave. Research into good practice in the classroom suggests that good teaching and learning requires a full range between abstract and concrete, complex and simple, and repeated waves over time. My own research interest lies in looking at what affordances technology may offer for meaning making practices in the classroom.

I have recently done an analysis of the lowering or strengthening of semantic gravity and density in one of the Code Combat units which taught web design skills (HTML and CSS). What emerged was a pattern not too unfamiliar in the classroom with traditional face-to-face instruction. The software was very good at explaining concepts, introducing an idea, such as a mark-up tag, and giving concrete examples so that students could understand what an HTML tag looks like, and what it does. Across the thirteen levels of the unit there were repeated movements between abstract and concrete as the software unpacked each of the concepts involved. Very little opportunity was given for students to explore the examples and try to reconstruct knowledge by, for example, creating novel tags. Only in the final two lessons was there any emphasis on encouraging students to build knowledge themselves.

This type of semantic wave, a movement from abstract (weak semantic gravity) to concrete (strong semantic gravity) is very common in the classroom. It is termed a “down escalator”. Down escalators are essential, and problematic only if they form the major part of the diet and are seldom accompanied by any upward movement of the wave. In other words most of the class is simply explanation, with very little opportunity for students to explore their own understandings and construct knowledge in their own voice.

This happens more often than we would like to admit in classrooms, but with digital platforms it is even more common. In fact this unit of work offers quite a decent nod at constructivist pedagogies with a fairly open ended final set of units in which the student is invited to use the knowledge they have gained to create their own web pages. When students construct knowledge, sound educational practice is to carefully scaffold this to help students draw valid conclusions. Experienced teachers are skilled at doing this, but educational software is not. Perhaps developments in Artificial Intelligence will render it more effective, but currently machines do not respond to what students are doing with much insight or facility. This makes the Instructional Design absolutely vital. If all the software does is help explain concepts to students, but never give them an opportunity to use that knowledge to reconstruct it in their own understandings and voice, that knowledge will never be internalized. Machines are ill-suited to this task. In this Code Combat unit of work the Instructional design does in fact give some opportunity to take knowledge of one tag, for example, and try it with another, or see what happens when the properties of tags are changed. There are in fact partial upward movements of the wave. part of the reason I chose Code Combat as a platform was that it does a reasonable job of explaining and giving an opportunity to practice skills, but it is clearly not enough.

In order to provide more scaffolding I had two choices. the first was to ensure that I was able to jump from student to student as they worked on the units, helping mediate the content to ensure greater opportunities for exploration. This might be practical on an individual basis, but almost impossible with a class of thirty as I had. I was also reluctant to become the expert, solving everyone’s problems. That way nobody except myself would learn anything! Debugging student code is also very time consuming, and in a class of thirty would give me, say one minute with each student, always assuming I could help spot any problems in that time!

The second option was to encourage students to work in pairs and provide peer and teacher mentoring. The aim of this was to ensure that students always had someone else present with whom to discuss what they were learning, help overcome problems when students got stuck, to try out ideas and compare code – “why does yours work and mine doesn’t?” This provides students with opportunities to explain to others why their code seems to work, and what their thinking was, and helps, I believe, build a better understanding over time. It also helps students to express their ideas about what they are doing and weakens the semantic gravity by getting them to abstract their thoughts out. Indeed when I do help a student what I try to do is ask them what they are trying to do rather than trying to fix the issue myself.

Peer mentoring and collaboration is a powerful way to bridge the gap between the instructional power of e-learning software, and its somewhat less potent ability to foster constructivist learning practice.





Flash Feedbacks – ICTs For English Teachers

English teachers have usually found that ICTs are a good fit for creative self-expression. There are numerous multi-media authoring tools for computers or tablet devices which can be used to allow students to create multi-modal presentations of one kind or another. But it is not so easy to see how to use them when unpacking a work of literature or working on language accuracy. There are, of course, numerous drill and practice type sites online where students can fill in the missing word, or select the correct form of the verb, or answer multiple choice questions on comprehension texts, but I’m not going to consider those at this time. For the most part they are kiss of death, not too bad for the occasional exercise if you want to ring the changes, but hardly anything to get wildly excited about!

When it comes to teaching literature, however, there is very little substitute for guiding a close reading of the text and for discussion. Some of this happens in a whole class context, some of it in groups. But the essence of grappling with a text lies in the throwing out of ideas and seeing where they lead. ICTs can certainly be used in this process. Some of the discussion can happen before, and after the class on an electronic forum. Students can express their ideas about the themes or characterization of a novel in blogs or in wikis, but the heart of any literary study is in the face to face discussion in the classroom while doing a close reading. I have not yet found any digital advantage over reading a text with a class and interrogating particular words. What does this word suggest about the protagonist? What other possible meanings does this word have? It’s this process of worrying away at a text, like a dog worrying away at a bone, that produces understanding – often unexpected understandings. English teachers need to model this process, making their thinking visible to students, helping scaffold it for students, guiding their thoughts as they wrestle with a text. This process of coming to grips with a text has always formed the basis of my literature classes, interspersed with activities and exercises which aim at deepening or consolidating what students have learned from a close reading. I have tried different methods, but always come back to this as the only really effective way of engaging with a text with a class.

Snapshot - 1ICTs are no real use in this. However, I do see some use in terms of either recording discussions so they can be viewed later, or recording quick summaries of points made for later storage and retrieval. Note-taking during a discussion is not easy, although I encourage students to use the Cornell Note Taking Strategy. I have previously used quick Flash Feedback sessions at the end of a lesson, or activity, where students use their devices to record (audio or video) a quick summary of what their group decided or found. These can be shared on a LMS platform, and can form the basis for further discussion in class, or in a forum.

These Flash Feedbacks could easily be integrated into classroom discussion as well by pausing every now and then and recording a student summarising a point or points made. These recordings, posted on the LMS, can then be used as the basis for answering a question or any other activity. They form a digital record of a discussion and might help tease out some of the more interesting points made, which might otherwise have been forgotten.

Quite apart from providing some kind of record of a discussion, it also serves to help students bring together the thoughts and threads of the discussion and creates opportunities for building knowledge so that the ideas emerging from the discussion can be ordered and re-shaped into an argument about the meaning of the text.


Combining Cornell Note-taking with de Bono’s Thinking Hats

revised cornellI really enjoy using the Cornell Note Taking Strategy with my classes. The method involves using keywords and more expanded notes, with space for a summary at the bottom of the page. It works really well for general note-taking. I often model it on the whiteboard during class. I recently decided to combine this with the de Bono Thinking Hats to focus on particular aspects in my teaching.

I started exploring The Pearl, Steinbeck’s classic novella in class today, and wanted to find a way of helping students zero in on understanding and engaging in a character analysis of the protagonist, Kino. It struck me that de Bono’s Thinking Hats might well work as a scaffold for guiding this voyage of discovery. Students often struggle with the very notion of a character sketch, and yet no study of literature can even commence without developing this skill of reading a character. Most students, presented with the task of writing a character sketch, will either simply relate a series of facts about the protagonist, or will present a one-sided analysis, ignoring all the shades of grey!

It seems to me that the Thinking Hats are perfect cognitive tools for ensuring that students at least consider strengths and flaws in any protagonist’s make-up before commencing their sketch. I decided to use four of the hats, to include an immediate emotional response as well as a section for listing facts about the character so that I could have a conversation with students about which of these responses was relevant to the character sketch.

If you create a document as a template, as shown above, and share it on Google Docs so each student gets a copy, they can complete it, and submit it online, via Google Classroom, say. Or collaborate in groups to compile character sketches for a range of characters, which they then share with the rest of the class. This can result in a great set of class notes on any set work.

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