Archive for the ‘inquiry based learning’ Category

The old adage of “one page ahead” is dangerous territory for any teacher to find themselves in. Our students justifiably expect that our knowledge of our chosen subject area is more extensive than their own. But the current train of thought in New Zealand that more academic qualifications (knowledge) equates to more effective teaching is a fallacy.

I trained with people with PhDs in their chosen subject areas some of whom struggled to share that knowledge effectively with their students. Some never made it to a classroom. Why? Because when it comes to teaching, pedagogical skills (often considered to be lower level thinking than knowledge) win over subject knowledge every time. So in this regard, the push towards more time in the classrooms for secondary teacher trainees, IF adequately resourced, is a positive move.

Teaching is not an exact science. It is both art and science, profession and vocation. It requires knowledge, pedagogical understanding, experience, empathy and stamina. Experts in their fields have a tendency to forget what it is like to struggle. Their ability to recall the difficulty in learning new concepts, at breaking down subject material into bite-sized chunks for students can in fact be a hindrance. This is vital in classrooms characterised with a range of learning needs from low literacy to ADHD combined with hormones, cell phones and an endless list of other potential barriers to learning in any classroom on any given day.

It is a well known fact that we are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist. That most of students will have not only more than one job but more than one career during their working lives and that those with a wide range of transferrable skills are most likely to succeed in a future where the pace of change is exponential. Yes, shift truly happens.

On the other hand, in some instances, it might be okay to be not just one page ahead but actually on the same page as students. A focus on inquiry-based learning in New Zealand’s curriculum, which has become almost modus operandi in our primary schools, endorses this approach. Multiple pathways to accessing, processing and synthesising new information have made it acceptable to trek the learning path alongside our students – and that in itself can have benefits for student-teacher relationships. It allows students see us as human and therefore fallible too. This is especially the case with digital technology. (Who hasn’t used a 14-year-old as their ICT go to in a classroom?!)

At the end of the day, it is how we use and share our knowledge that has the potential to make a difference to students’ lives. Pedagogical content knowledge means being aware of different teaching strategies, being able to adapt and employ them, accepting that one size does not fit all and, like our students, not being afraid to try again if things don’t work out as we anticipated the first time around.

It’s a real shame that the decision makers in New Zealand seem so far removed from the daily realities of teaching. The current obsession with more bits of paper (proof of knowledge) highlights the gap between what the general public believe makes effective teachers and the diverse skill set teachers actually require to succeed.

When I chose to become a teacher five years ago, I had plenty of knowledge in my chosen subject areas backed up by 17 years industry experience.  What I didn’t have were the skills to share my knowledge (and experiences) with my students. After four years teaching and learning in four different schools, I’m getting there but the beauty of teaching is we can never know everything while our skills in student-centred learning environments, by definition, must be constantly developing. Surely this in itself makes us if not good role models than at least good ambassadors of the life long learning philosophy espoused in the New Zealand Curriculum?



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It had to happen. After two years of thinking about it, I’ve finally integrated the amazing CSI web-based learning adventure into an English class. And what better time of year to trial this than the end of the year when keeping students engaged becomes more challenging than ever.

I’ve posted about CSI before. I became interested in the principles of game-based learning and decided this web-adventure could be used as a spring board for creative writing for a range of reasons. I’m acutely aware of the difference between game-based learning and gamification. I’ve probably gamified the learning process more than created a genuine game-based learning opportunity BUT I’ve attempted to balance engagement, skill development and assessment in the context of creative writing. The benefits of using games in the class include:

1. The popularity of online, interactive games  – engagement

2. Rewards-based activities incentivise learning – in CSI, students gain instruments when they complete a section of rookie training.

3. The opportunity to reinforce core values around digital citizenship introduced through our wide reading blog – managing passwords and accounts, staying on task, using several sites consecutively (dictionary.com, virtual thesaurus and CSI)

4. Problem solving – one of me, lots of you means try to work it out yourself OR ask a friend first!

My learning outcomes were also linked to the NZC as creating meaning through creative writing is probably one of the most challenging aspects of the English curriculum to teach. Through embarking on the CSI web adventure I aimed to:

1. Give students a range of concrete nouns to include in their writing through creating individual glossaries of new subject specific words.

2. Provide a tangible setting for their writing – as they explored the labs and crime scenes, they were exposed to places they could describe in their stories. If they struggled to transfer that to their writing, they were also encouraged to use settings more familiar to them (Peter Johnstone Park, the Octagon, etc).

3. Introduction to a range of potential narrators through the game – students were given the choice of writing from one of the character’s points of view OR to imagine themselves as a rookie investigator as part of the team.

4. Sew the seeds of potential narratives as they took part in the interactive case studies .

5. Opportunities for cross curricular learning – the CSI game offers resources for a range of subject areas, especially Science.

Over the past few weeks, my two Year 9 classes have completed Rookie Training and at least two case studies, created a glossary of new words (the goal was 15 words) and set up Google doc accounts. I’ve also trialled using Kaizena to give verbal feedback to several students. Kaizena enables students to share their docs with your profile. You then highlight words/phrases and give feedback on improvements needed. There’s a great introductory presentation available here. I’ve found I provide more feedback and it’s highly personalised so it becomes instantly more meaningful.

We then revised characterisation and narrative structure and, discussed a range of potential hooks to draw the reader in which I modelled on the board using the CSI theme.  I got students to complete a planning sheet of ideas (who is your main character, what happens, and then…) as like most of us, the hardest thing about writing is starting.

Every one of the 58 students has submitted drafts at varying stages of the writing process.  I’ve been blown away by some of the drafts. Given the stage of the year, I fully expected to have to closely monitor laptop usage but have only had to reprimand one student in the whole two weeks for not being on task. They’ve been genuinely riveted (and at times frustrated) with the game and have taken that level of engagement through to their writing. Given that I have students working from Level 2-5 of the NZC, I’m happy with that outcome.

I’ve got a planning unit available for anyone interested in giving this a go. Over the next few days, I’ll also seek permission from a couple of students to publish their work here. Watch this space!

Screenshot 2014-11-30 21.07.38

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I’ve been following with interest discussions around the concept of flipped learning.  Flipped classrooms were named after a paper published in 2000 (so not entirely new) by Lage, Platt and Treglia where the authors sought to encourage students to learn by doing by giving them access to learning materials before they entered the classroom. This is a concept readily used by tertiary institutions although often I suspect it becomes a way of catching up on missed lectures rather than actively choosing to bring something to the learning table… .

Flipped classrooms freak me out. Not because I’m against the concept which clearly resonates with the NZC value of creating lifelong learners who are active seekers, users and creators of knowledge. Not only do they need to learn stuff with us, they need to learn how to learn. My anxiety stems from concerns around access to technology both outside and inside school for many (most?) of our state educated secondary students. In others words, love the theory, can’t get my head around the practice.

So it was with some delight I came across the related concept of tilted classrooms vie www.edudemic.com.  The more I read, the more I saw opportunities for applying the concept as well as some aha moments where I recognised I have been tilting for several months! Edudemic sums up the difference between the two approaches as:

“…flipped learning is about transferring control to students to make them more involved and more responsible for their learning process, sideways learning is about making learning and study tools accessible to all students.”

Tilting a classroom still uses online resources but blends those with group work, classroom  discussion and after school learning. So far so good. But what might it look like?

1. Proactive use of a LMS: We use ultranet as an LMS. Others schools use moodle and/or wiki. Rather than an online repository for word documents, I aim to include videos, podcasts, quizzes and links to online sites to both extend and support students’ learning. I’m not saying they are all regular users but by showing them the site often in class, there are at least some using this option.

2. Reusable videos: There are some great sites around covering ideas, concepts, texts and can be included in lessons. Kahn Academy, Teacher Tube, TED Talks, the Vlog brothers Crash Course clips and  Upworthy are worth searching and bookmarking. Recently, I used clips off YouTube from a Sunday TV programme on boy racing as a starter for Year 10 formal writing. We also discussed the case of the 4 year-old boy who was killed by a boy racer in Christchurch. This generated a brainstorming session and then planning essays on A3 in groups. Their homework was to write an introduction independently.

3. Mini-lectures: I’ve become a fan of Showme this year. These presentations are easy to create and can be added to a LMS via a link so  students (yes with computer access OR smart phones with data credit!) can review in their own time. The combination of visual and oral cues works well especially with lower literacy learners who definitely prefer this to note taking. Be warned – you’ll need your best radio voice!

4. Interactive online resources: Why recreate the wheel? These are also a great option for tilting learning. This week, I used readwritethink’s persuasion map and essay map with my Year 10 class. We were half way through a formal writing assessment when I judged they were all still struggling with the basics. So I abandoned mission, lucked it with a booking for laptops, got them to complete both planners using their assessment topic and print the results. They have been much more focussed since. We also used the BBC skillwise site as a starter going right back to sentence construction and punctuation by talking about the rules then playing games. I did them first and then challenged students to beat my time. (Yes some did!)

So even in a learning environment where access to technology is not a given, there are ways to at least tilt learning. As well as promoting deep level thinking (SOLO anyone?), encouraging self-management and inquiry based learning, there are other benefits to teachers. This approach enables us to spend more one on one time with students (and let’s face it, core subject classes are large in most state secondary schools), is a less exhausting way to teach and once you have created/bookmarked a few videos/sites, you can reuse them so is less stressful.

None of this is rocket science. In fact flipped learning is based on core pedagogical tennants of relevancy, differentiation and engagement.  And whether you’re a cautious tilter or a committed flipper, developing new ways to enhance learning outcomes is at the very least pause for thought.



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I first came across Scoop.it last year via Peter Mellow of Curtin University. Like many good ideas, it got put on the back-burner until recently when I made time to have a play – and I’m glad I did.

Scoop.it is a great online curation tool that enables us to share relevant information with students in a visually appealing, easy to use format. “Creative consumption” according to the folks at Scoop.it.  Previously I’ve shared links to websites with students via koodle/wiki/email but Scoop.it enables creators to “scoop” several sites onto one page (or online magazine).  It pays to show students the page to pique their interest.

There are plenty of reasons to love Scoop.it including:

1. One click and you’re there – saves time

2. You can include sites that appeal to a range of learners – yes, differentiate 🙂

3. You can critique each site in a separate thumbnail that appears under each previewed site for comments like “great for revision” or “has a quiz”  – saves time

4. It’s a fantastic way to extend those hungry for more than you can cover in class  – feeds the mind

5. Each site is presented visually so it looks good – holds attention

6. You can arrange the sites from most to least important – makes sense

7. It’s easy to create a topic – intuitive

And even better for time poor teachers, if you aren’t inclined to create your own page, simply search on Scoop.it and it’s highly likely someone has beaten you to it. Working smarter not harder right?

So far I have shown my level 2s a link via koodle and hope like heck they’re visiting this weekend (you can check site stats) before next week’s exams.  My iPad class should have all bookmarked and, wifi willing, will create their own pages on Romeo and Juliet next week. There is an app for iPad users to use Scoop.it too.

It’s easier to supply your students with a link to your topics as they could be searching a while otherwise .  Anyhow, check it out yourself.  Here are links to my Hone Tuwhare, To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet pages. Enjoy.

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As teachers, we’re preparing learners for careers that may not even exist yet. It’s often quoted that Gen-Y can expect to have up to seven different jobs in their lifetimes.  As such, it’s pretty important that we’re equipping students with a range of transferable skills that enable them to survive and thrive in the future.

Increasingly skills such as critical analysis, collaboration, information gathering and dissemination will become the new black in a tight employment market.

Visual ly is a site enabling users to create and share data visualisation and infographics. Applications? Many! In a nutshell, you could either search for existing Visual-ly posters project and discuss OR create your own!

Towards the end year as students revise for exams, it would be a great way for them to show deeper understanding of texts studied throughout the year.  It would pay to have sessions during the year so everyone knew how to create a Visual-ly but this seems like a fantastic way to encourage deeper level thinking, make links within and between texts, demonstrate personal insight and present responses to texts.

It could also be used to:

  • Present material gathered during research assignments
  • Plan answers for exam questions
  • Break down complex subject matter


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After a hectic few weeks, Aoraki Advocate is here.  Lovingly produced from go to whoa by Media Comms students from both the Dunedin and Christchurch campuses and kindly printed by the Ashburton Guardian.  It’s a culmination of an entire year’s learning and, although biased, I think it’s a great effort. Hope the students like it when they get their copies at graduation on Monday…

[issuu width=420 height=291 backgroundColor=%23222222 documentId=121205201804-69dfe71ddc7d41b0b70a099a34f0253a name=aoraki-advocate-2012 username=aorakinz tag=christchurch unit=px v=2]


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Today’s inspiration comes via Shimon Schocken, a computer science professor and dedicated educator.  From a long and inspirational line of “life-long, tenacious self-learners”, the Schocken family’s back story could well be the basis of the NZC. They achieved remarkable results driven by a sheer passion for learning and knowledge despite being unable to access a formal education. His parents and grandparents instilled in the young Shimon the importance of learning for learning’s sake.

Shimon spent five years deconstructing a computer to create the tools and infrastructure that would enable his students to build a computer in one semester. Why? Because along with his colleague Noam Nisan, he was concerned that as computers became more complex, students were unable to see the forest for the trees i.e. they were losing the ability to think for themselves.  Schocken then made the building blocks freely available in open source on the web.  This allowed others with what he calls a “hacker mentality” to set up their own courses.  Not surprisingly, educators who were similarly motivated by instilling a passion to learn used those resources to create a raft of programmes and projects of their own. I don’t pretend to understand his building blocks, nor would I envisage using them myself BUT I do like his thinking.

Schocken’s talk gets to the heart of an ongoing challenge for anyone responsible for guiding Gen Y in the learning process. Motivation.  I’ve been reading up on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and I reckon that if young people aren’t extrinsically motivated, they will struggle to take the step up to being intrinsically motivated to learn.  Why are they lacking basic motivation? Sometimes I feel it’s because they have had too much done for them over the years.  And based on Schocken’s observations, if the mechanism for learning itself takes away some of the inquiring process, then a lot of young people will stop wondering at all! So break it down and let them build it up from scratch.  It seems like a huge leap of faith especially for new teachers but if we can create the environment, provide them with the resources and some guidance, maybe they will learn.

More importantly, we have to let them fail.

Schocken abhors the college grading system. He believes it takes the fun out of failing which is a “huge part of education”. This must strike a chord with anyone working in the tertiary sector (not to mention secondary and oh, hang on a minute, now our primary colleagues).  Schocken bemoans a system that worships grades, doesn’t tolerate mistakes and where eventually “grading becomes degrading”.  Sound familiar anyone?!

Anyone I’ve probably given far too much away again so enjoy for yourself when you can.





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Another great Ted Talk from Julian Treasure about the importance of good acoustic design. Most of his ten minute talk is dedicated to classroom acoustics (from around 2:50 to 8:50 if you’re in a hurry).

Treasure has crunched the numbers and reckons that on any given day, in any classroom, 16% of students are hearing impaired (that includes those with a cold, hay fever, ear infections etc), more than 10% (bad use of language there as any journo knows that “more than” 10% is 11-100% so is therefore meaningless so let’s say around 10%) and 33% are introverts who don’t learn well in group situations anyway according to Susan Cain.  My maths isn’t great but isn’t that 59% (let’s say about 60%) of learners who aren’t hearing what they need to due to poor acoustic design?! Anyone else alarmed by that?

So let’s hope that if there are to be new schools built perhaps to the south-west of Christchurch in the next decade, architects pay heed to this advice. Otherwise, as his “flagship” UK example shows, there will be millions of dollars misspent.  Every child surely deserves the chance to hear what is being said in a classroom.  And the cost of retrospectively improving poor acoustics isn’t that great.

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Interesting talk about how physiological development in the brain affects decision-making and empathy in teenagers.  Nothing too new, attended a similar lecture by Otago University vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne in 2010. Still a good refresher.

Very much enjoyed the conversation thread about what people weren’t taught in school but thought they should have been.

Comments range from schools needing to focus on social skills more and focus less on job skills to teaching financial literacy and the psychology of human relationships (good luck with that one).

I think NZ schools are leaders in teaching critical thinking skills despite having a heavily summative approach to assessment.  Primary schools in particular are good at providing opportunities for inquiry-based learning. One Dunedin school uses the future problem solvers website with its students to give them real life problems to work on. This is also an opportunity to teach social skills through working in groups, with the community etc.   If the teacher is not skilled enough to ensure some degree of focus (and guidance over the diplomacy of group work), the associated learning can lose some relevance. And some teens get to secondary school and find it hard to adjust to the more defined approach to content – i.e less scope for inquiry based learning, especially in senior years.  Again not the teachers’ choice.

I don’t know a single teacher who enjoys teaching to the test but if the Government is hell-bent on comparing apples and pears to pander to some misguided middle-class perceptions (misconceptions?) about what makes a “good” school and what “success” is, then I guess that becomes the default. This is especially true in an economic recession when teaching jobs are scarce, competition for vacancies is fierce, schools regularly cannibalise each other for staff and students (in the south anyway) and then the Government signals moves towards performance-based pay (based on apples and pears based league tables) It’s all so wrong.

And as for social skills – some valid points there. I do worry about the role of parents and whanau.  My sons’ school spends a lot of time teaching core values to its pupils – kindness, honesty etc.  Wouldn’t it be better if children arrived at school with those values instilled from home and a couple of years quality ECE? Ah well, back on planet Earth!  Now back to those dreadful teens…


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