Mentoring – The Killer App? Using Game Mechanics to achieve Differentiated Learning Opportunities.

One of the great conundrums facing education is that while we as teachers know that students only learn effectively when they are in their proximal zones of development, ie. learning something just a little above their current competence, we sit with classes of twenty to forty students, each one with different learning needs! How to personalise learning when economics determines larger class sizes remains the burning issue of our times. In an ideal world all classes might be one-on-one, or relatively small group sessions when preferred. In that way all instruction could be tailored towards the precise needs of each individual student. Those promoting the use of computers have long touted the machine as an answer. BF Skinner’s teaching machines promised the panacea of an infinitely patient machine providing students with individualised content and appropriate feedback, using branching procedures to make sure that each student received exactly what they needed to maximise learning. These machines did not work, however, and were quickly labelled drill and kill!

Now it might be that advances in Artificial Intelligence will deliver machines more capable of the subtlety and empathy required for effective content delivery and feedback, but we are not there yet. In my experience computer driven instructional software tends to be rejected by students overwhelmingly. The classroom still sits with the problem of one teacher and multiple students, and no clear way to offer personalization efficiently and effectively. Dan Buckley’s Personalisation By Pieces approach offers perhaps the best solution yet. Students create pieces of work which demonstrate mastery of skills. This work is uploaded electronically and assessed by a peer mentor who has passed the skill level being demonstrated. This provides the student with accreditation at that level and enables them to mentor and assess others. There is more to the system than this, but in a nutshell this is what is used to establish a cycle of virtuous practice designed to create independent learners.

The model presented is of two possible routes for Personalisation, one teacher lead (T-Route) and the other student driven (P-Route). The uses of ICT are accordingly different, specifically being used to monitor and record progress, and link peer mentors and mentees and provide them with channels of communication rather than to prepare teacher resources and instructional materials. Crucially learning becomes student-directed, with multiple pathways available and students able to choose which direction they wish to pursue. The key difference between the Personalisation By Pieces approach and Skinner’s Teaching Machines lies in the key insight that mentorship works to the benefit of both parties! Students who have completed a level are more than capable and benefit from helping explain, mentor and assess the work of their peers.

As Vygotsky noted, learning is social in the first instance, and we need the assistance of a more experienced other to help us bridge the gap between what we already know or can do, and what it is that we are learning. A system which uses peer mentor assessment could be crucial in providing the kind of individualised feedback that promotes personalised learning pathways. In my view this does not down-play the role of the teacher, whose whole class instruction and oversight of progress remains crucial.

Now the PbyP approach obviously crosses the borders of individual classrooms and schools in linking mentors and mentees, but it would be interesting to see what could be done even within individual classrooms and without the benefit of a custom-built ICT platform like PbyP.

Computer Gaming is often seen as the enemy of education, but as James Paul Gee has pointed out in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, computer games demonstrate principles of learning in remarkably efficient ways! Players are kept in their proximal zones of development and learning is artfully scaffolded. Players do not feel daunted by failure, they simply try and try and try again. Ample time is given for these re-takes, and the rewards are epic! No player seems to resent someone who is a level or two ahead of them, they simply strive to get their themselves. Players are also generous in their assistance, mentoring newbies and sharing strategies and tactics. We could do a lot worse than getting our classrooms to emulate games.

I am not arguing that every lesson should be gamified, or that the syllabus should be rewritten as a game. There is a great deal of knowledge which cannot be gamified. But I am suggesting that game mechanics should be used as exemplars of classroom management practice. In a game, players take on urgent tasks, but not necessarily in any given order. They tend to tackle that task and keep working at it until a solution is found. They may suffer spectacular failure, but bounce back until they succeed. Players collaborate to help each other out. This is exactly what we would like to see in the classroom. But how do we get the same effects without trivializing the tasks involved?

As a teacher of English Second Language, I often found a great deal of differentiation in level amongst the students in my class. But with classes of 35 plus, addressing everyone’s specific needs was difficult without creating a variety of tasks graded for ability. This is not really very difficult to do. Take comprehension skills, for example. I still did whole class instruction when tackling skills, strategies and approaches to comprehension. But when it came to selecting practice tasks for students to tackle, it is easy enough to have a box full of differentiated tasks, colour-coded for reading ability. These can be used across age cohorts. When tackling language skills, I would direct those students struggling with concord, for example, towards exercises around this, and those needing more work with vocabulary towards these tasks. I kept a file with a page per student to record what tasks had been completed, and what needed further work. While not very game-like, this did mean that students were tackling mastery across parallel, overlapping, but differentiated paths. One can easily imagine overlaying game mechanics to create a more engaging experience. Students loved the individual attention they were getting. I was usually able to sit down with about a third of my class in any session and I used to assess work in front of them and give feedback and follow-up tasks at the same time. I have never believed in taking marking home with me!

As a Computer Skills teacher I have a gamified my syllabus completely in that all the tasks revolve around a narrative – see The Mobius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom. But while these tasks allow for different speeds of progress they are not differentiated according to learning needs. This is partly because a computer skills syllabus does not really involve much work that is really complicated. There are only so many spreadsheet skills, for example. Something more complicated and nuanced, such as comprehension skills provides far more need for branching. Many students struggle with idiomatic expressions. There appears to be something of a generation gap between the authors of pieces used in comprehension passages, magazine or newspaper articles, and school-aged readers. But others may be misconstruing the connotations of words and therefore missing the purpose of the writing. Differentiated learning paths would greatly benefit students in this instance. But simply adding a games layer to your English classroom may seem forced and artificial. Simply awarding badges and posting leaderboards does not seem to me to be the answer either.

The idea of using peer mentorship and assessment using more experienced peers to be found in Personalisation By Pieces, however, seems to me to offer a real alternative. To take our example of Comprehension Skills, having a student who is struggling with idiomatic language usage receive help and have a task based on idioms assessed by someone who has recently “passed” a unit of work based on idioms would deliver a useful and authentic context for games-like level based achievement. This could be achieved across grades and ages using online piece submission platforms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams for Education. Analog work could be scanned for submission purposes if need be. This would provide a paper trail and record of what was covered.





5 Chrome browser extensions that you probably haven’t heard about but need to be using

5 Chrome browser extensions that you probably haven’t heard about but need to be using

A great post on essential plugins on Chrome that teachers need to have a look at.

History Tech

It’s not a secret. I say it a couple times a week:

“If Google was a person, I’d marry it.”

And not just for it’s money. (Though that would be nice.) I love how the Google universe has something for everyone. Elementary. Middle and high school. Different content areas. A variety of tools for consuming and creating. VR. Digital literacy.

You don’t have to look very hard before you find something you can use.

But one of the easiest things you can use is the Google Chrome browser and what Google calls Chrome extensions.

A Chrome extension is basically a small piece of software that you download from the Chrome Web Store and add to your Chrome browser. These little pieces of software extend the capabilities of the browser across multiple web sites and do something that the browser itself can’t do. Most extensions add a button to your browser’s taskbar to…

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Posted by on May 9, 2018 in Uncategorized


Why Fix the Classroom When Society is Broken?

Research shows that societal factors weigh far more heavily than school-based factors in determining outcomes in education. Our society is characterized by massive and growing inequality. We have a two-tiered education system in which the vast majority receive a schooling designed to keep them in their place, cannon fodder for the workplace, schooled enough to function in menial tasks, but not prepared with the problem-solving and critical thinking skills that characterize the education of the small elite. It is not that schools are broken, they are doing exactly what they are designed to do! They accurately reproduce the inequality in society and perpetuate it.

This leaves teachers with a dilemma. If we improve the classroom are we not merely making it more efficient at reproducing inequality? Many kinds of efficiencies clearly fall into this category. Efficient assessments create the kinds of perfect bell curves that separate people out into those who excel, those who pass and those who fail. If a teacher makes do with limited resources and creatively adapts to make the best of a bad situation, is she not simply keeping a rotten system afloat? Might she not serve humanity better by throwing in the towel and forcing society at large to see that the schooling is predicated on inequality by letting it fail more?

As seductive as this idea might seem, it is not a path most teachers will consciously take to. Teachers tend to see their primary responsibility as being the care and nurturing of their students. To deliberately fail their students by letting the contradictions inherent in the system bubble to the surface in the vague hopes of effecting change is not really an option I can see anyone adopting. We need to try to change the system from within so as to subvert its function in society. I believe this can be done. Or at any rate, it is surely worth the effort. Most of us will have read Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) by Neil Postman at some point, and while many of us fall short in the militancy department, I truly believe that the majority of teachers do a good job of eating away at the rotten idea that education is about closing doors rather than opening them up!

Nowhere is inequality more stark than in the whole question of assessment. Exam boards and final exit examinations ensure that teachers do the bidding of the system. I may disagree with the emphasis on marks, but I am not going to disadvantage any of my students by failing to prepare them for the exam! I can use my professional autonomy to teach in different and hopefully subversive ways, but the final assessment is a hurdle difficult to avoid. All the things that teachers hate about examinations as they are set, the insistence on breadth rather than depth, leading to impossibly long syllabi, the focus on recall rather than critical thinking, the inflexibility and finality of the result and its life-changing importance, create an unhealthy pressure on all concerned.

If you re-imagined educational assessment such that all students achieved mastery, something not outside our reach, we would clearly then be creating a different kind of school, one dysfunctional to the society around us. It seems to me axiomatic that if people are engaged in something that motivates them, they normally succeed at a very high level. A student who might be failing in school, might well be an expert in video gaming. By changing the curriculum so that it it reflects what people want to learn rather than what we think they ought to learn, we might find far more equality in educational outcomes.

The last thirty years has seen a steady advance down the road of Neo-Liberal, Taylorist efficiency. Schools have been urged to run more like businesses, and sacrifice broad liberal education for approaches designed to articulate with the needs of the work-place. Budgets have been tightened, teachers have been deskilled by a drive for greater uniformity and the power of educational publishers to impose syllabi and learning materials in the name of common standards. If it’s week three we should be doing fractions, regardless of the needs of the individual student or the professionalism of the teacher to address those needs. The Fourth Year Slump is an excellent example of a system gone mad. By the fourth year of schooling literacy skills are no longer explicitly taught. Any student who has missed the boat, whose reading or writing skills are not up to scratch, finds themselves condemned to learning coping skills to cover lack of adequate comprehension, rather than simply taking the time to continue teaching literacy, where needed, just that bit longer. The fourth year slump suits a system predicated on reproducing inequality, does it not?

The system is not going to change without quietly eating away at its innards. Subversion that is too overt will be crushed ruthlessly. Teachers are powerless to change the key elements that shape the system and make it functional to inequality, curriculum, syllabi and exams. But we do have one crucial advantage. We can control our own classrooms. We can use that space to push the boundaries of curriculum, syllabus and assessment and to try to foster the kinds of critical thinking and growth mindsets which will feed the humanity of our students and leave them, and us, in a better position to thrive.


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Posted by on May 4, 2018 in Assessment, Pedagogy, Teaching


A First Look at Microsoft Teams for Education

I have to declare my bias up-front. My favourite Learning Management System is Moodle. I love the functionality of Moodle. However, most of the teachers in my school have gone for Google Classroom and I have gone along with that. What Google Classroom lacks in functionality it makes up for in simplicity. I am currently testing Microsoft’s answer, Teams for Education, which our Network Admins are punting, and I have to say I am somewhat torn. This may seem trivial, but my first reservation lies with the name of the platform, Teams. Had it been called Microsoft Classroom, for example, one would have had a sense that the platform was custom-built for educational purposes, rather than being a business tool adapted for use in the educational sphere. My fear was that it would prove a poorly adapted tool at that. A first glance at the interface did not inspire confidence either. Nothing about its look and feel suggests either ease of use or educational functionality. And yet persistence is rewarded by a sense of hidden power, something generally lacking in Google’s offering.

It is surprisingly easy to create a new Team (Class) or collaborative space. Let’s say you are creating a space for a class. You can add other teachers and students to the classroom easily by clicking on a button to add members. You can change settings and permissions in the general channel, and add other channels for different topics or purposes. Each channel comes with a OneNote Notebook which allows for the insertion of multimedia content, and gives each student their own notebook space. The power of OneNote is truly awesome and alone makes Teams a serious contender in the educational space.

You can also add other apps to the channel such as Quizlet or Flipgrid and any kind of file can be shared. This seamless integration of multimedia content and educational apps immediately catapults it ahead of Google Classroom’s functionality and puts it within spitting distance of Moodle! Assignments can be added and graded online too. Markbooks can be downloaded in CSV format.

Now, I have to say that I have not to date set up a real classroom for a real class with real content and assignments. Only once you do this will you get a sense as a teacher of how the platform meets your needs, and the extent to which students find it easy to use. But first impressions are somewhat promising. Teams for Education clearly has functionality, but it is also somewhat clunky and anti-intuitive. I will have to reserve final judgement until I have been able to use it as a platform in the wild!




Take the Leap.. to the OneNote for Windows 10 App

Take the Leap.. to the OneNote for Windows 10 App

Integration Innovation

Anyone who knows me knows that this sign on my desk is pretty indicative of the way I go about things:


I’m a risk-taking, jump-right-in, what-could-possibly-go-wrong, all-in kind of girl.  So when I heard OneNote desktop version is being sunsetted, I just sort of moseyed on over to the Windows 10 app and moved in.  I’ve been living there almost full-time because if that’s going to be my new OneNote, I want to really start to form a friendship with it.  I know, I know….it doesn’t have ALL the cool stuff from OneNote 2016 desktop yet, but it will.  So for now, I still just pop in for visits with 2016 when I need a certain tool, but for the most part, I’ve migrated!

windows10appSo if you haven’t even looked at the app yet and are brand new to all of this, take a look at the image above.  #1…

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Posted by on April 30, 2018 in Uncategorized


Using Listening to Improve Historical Understanding


This school year, two colleagues and I have been conducting some research on speaking and listening skills in our classrooms. Part of this work was funded by an ASCD Teacher Impact Grant and will be presented at their Empower 17 conference in Anaheim on March 25, 2017. Thanks to the Constitutional Rights Foundation and WestEd some of this work will continue for the next two years due to an additional grant focused on expanding teacher practice networks.   

As part of this work, we piloted some listening assessments with Listenwise, a company that aligns National Public Radio content with content standards in ELA, Social Studies and Science. I assigned 11 listening quizzes to my students. On average, students were able to answer 72.8% of the questions correctly. This represents a substantial improvement on a Stauffer, Frost & Rybolt (1983) national study, which found that people, on average, only remember 17.2%…

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Posted by on April 25, 2018 in Uncategorized


Technology Will Not Replace You…Unless You Let It

Technology Will Not Replace You…Unless You Let It

Learn. Share. Repeat.

Stop it.
Just stop it right now.
Online learning is not going to take your job.
Technology will not replace teachers.

I wish this wasn’t the case, but every time I hear a teacher (or even worse, administrator) flirt with the idea that technology is going to replace educators my blood boils. From the pit of my stomach up to my eye-balls I feel a fiery anger because it simply is not true.

We aren’t trying to create robots who regurgitate information

I get to work with some of the most fabulous educators and educational technology leaders. I can confidently say that not a single one of them is for destroying all brick and mortar school buildings and sitting kids in front of devices all day long. We work, tirelessly, to ensure that the experiences students have with and without technology are meaningful and relevant. We want to use the best of…

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Posted by on April 23, 2018 in Uncategorized

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