Category Archives: Teaching

The one that matters

Axe on Block

For the second year in a row now, I am currently getting students across four classes enrolled in Year 11 & 12 Career & Enterprise (a digital literacy focused course I coordinate at our school) to design their own mid-year test, complete with answers. This is what happens:

Students are asked to come up with three types of questions for the test – true/false, multiple choice, and short answer. They can write as many questions as they like, using the material from the Moodle course we share across the four classes. In the Moodle forum, they state the question, write possible answers, highlight the correct answer (T/F, Multiple Choice) or provide the briefest of hints in the case of short answer questions.

Student have to not only know the content but consider the type, the level and appropriateness of the questions, then shape them as best as they can so they can be included in the test. After a period or two of creating question, discussing, modelling and ‘over the shoulder’ help, I pick the best range of 10 – 15 T/F, 15 -20 M/C and 5 – 8 S/A student-designed questions.

At all times, all questions and answers from which the test is drawn are public so everyone can see, share and work alone or together. Students sit a test using a quiz in Moodle (see 2 Minute Moodles for how-to) and get instant feedback at the end with some follow up later.

The idea is that the more you contribute and share, the greater the number of questions you will know in a test, thus increasing the chance of getting a better grade. But the ‘better grades’ incentive is just the surface and on the surface – it may even sound dangerously close to ‘grade inflation’.

Deep inside this exercise is the idea of a small community deciding ‘what is important? (and therefore should be checked for understanding)’ As noted, grades are the surface and one not to be dismissed either. When you dig deeper, students want their question to be in the test, and not only because they know the answer to it but because they want to contribute.

On the surface of it and in edu-speak, it is about metacognition and learning. Students certainly do all that. Deeper though, it is a about participation and confidence and opportunity to participate and shape something that has traditionally been the domain of ‘those who know’ (teachers) as opposed to ‘those who don’t know and need to be taught’ (students). Yes, I still pick the questions but that’s another story…

On the surface of it, a kid could loaf, wait for everyone else to do their questions, read them, learn the answers and then blitz the test with 100%. “Not educationally valid and sound’ some may argue. In a ‘traditional’ understanding of assessment and ‘testing’ they may even be right.

But then I ask students ‘if everyone thought that way, what would happen?’ The follow up is ‘how would other members of the community who have contributed feel about you simply sucking off them? Once or twice may be OK but how about regularly? Who is the real sucker here anyway? What do you think about it?

I have had only a handful of ‘loafers’ over the last couple of years (all normal and expected anyway) but no one has ever flatly refused to participate. If anything, some students don’t quite know what to do since they have never been asked to do such a thing in the past.

If we had gone the ‘traditional’ way I know for sure that just about all of them would loaf, switch-off, expect to do the minimum then pass the test with minimum (or even fail).

A few days ago, I sent out a tweet: Don’t bother changing the [official] curriculum – change the hidden one, it’s more powerful anyway (if new to the concept of hidden curriculum, a link to Wikipedia will get you started then meander from there).

Our test-with-a-twist lies within the official curriculum but it starts to chip away at the hidden curriculum. And it is the hidden one that so often, so insidiously and so powerfully stratifies these students into what they are expected to be and do by virtue of being a member of this particular school community and the community it is situated within. Hence my line about diverting the effort into something that matters (more)…

Or as a dear friend of mine would say: “I don’t teach a subject. I teach them how to live a life. I use a subject to do that.”

Sanity kit

Medical kit
In all the talk of (the need for) systemic change, I often remind myself about things I can control and make happen at the micro-level as a teacher. This is my sanity kit on how to do things, a “letter to self” I have decided to share:

  • Walk the talk of collaboration

Teaching is a pretty lonely business. We close that classroom door and it’s just “us and the kids”. We teach kids to share, collaborate and so on (multiplied greatly of course by technology) but we so rarely get to do these things ourselves, among colleagues. If we do, it’s an exception rather than the norm. We ‘talk’ about it but we don’t exactly ‘walk’ and model collaboration with our students.

How about (more) team teaching? Across the school, state or the world? Asking colleagues in a different learning area, school or country what they are doing or at least having a rough outline of it in a shared space? Sharing resources by creating and/or using the same Moodle course among several classes? Creating a network of fellow educators? Learning and getting others to start using collaborative tools like wikis, Google docs, social bookmarking as a norm and not some esoteric, new-fangled way of doing things?

Isolation is the enemy of innovation and helpful human relationships.

  • Use your freedom

I often hear fellow teachers saying how we have no power to do and change things, how we need to follow a million rules and so on. I don’t exactly agree with all of that.

Down on the ground we are the most free of the lot! If you have ever worked in bureaucracy, particularly at some sort of management position, you would probably know how difficult it is to comply with a mountain of things, regulations, budgets, personality types, lobbies, cliques and other (quasi)politicians.

We and the kids in the class are indeed quite free to be creative, tailor things to individuals (us and students) and give things a go. Sure we may fail sometimes a bit, a lesson will fall apart sometimes but by trying to be innovative, flexible and, very importantly, in tune with the context of the group and individual we teach, we are sending a powerful message – it is OK to try and learn. So … use your freedom, experiment and live a little!

  • Plant a seed

I often admire the tenacity and zeal of religious door knockers but I have to say I have always politely closed the door: “No thanks, no salvation here!” They do however remind me of my job sometimes trying to tell people how to use technology and extol its usefulness at work.

I follow my passion(s) but don’t expect others to openly and immediately share in it. I know I had fallen in the trap of “how can’t they see it, I wonder if I am making ANY difference at all…” Now I’d plant a seed instead, give it some ‘fertiliser’ and observe.

As teachers and mentors, we are in a privileged position to ‘plant many seeds’. The flipside of that is that we (may) never see those seeds grow. If you want instant and constant gratification – teaching probably isn’t for you. We may occasionally get a thank you or notice someone using something we had shared with and/or passed on. But that’s about it, wouldn’t expect big bells and whistles about it.

Until you meet a former student or colleague in town one day and they proceed to tell you how valuable your lessons or materials were, how they changed the way they work because of your ideas and so on … that stuff is like a drug!

  • Feed back

Lots of educational research tells us about the importance of feedback as the number one factor determining student success.

What about teacher success? What feedback do we get? How often do you get a colleague, an administrator, or a student say “this is really good”? Give you a constructive critique of your work?

Notice the work of your colleagues, praise, help and critique them whenever you can (without being too nosey or cheesy, of course). It rubs off and very easily too. Ours is a business of relationships – feed some back.

  • Speak out!

Speak out. Don’t be a sheep. But when you do, have something constructive to say. Isn’t that what we are trying to teach the kids?

I love it when students tell me I am starting to lose them, when I start repeating myself, not making sense. I encourage them to do that because it saves us all time and effort by not doing what is clearly not working well. Ego aside, it is a very responsible way of doing things.

Don’t just tell me that it’s boring, tell me why is it boring.

  • Remember the important things

I had a very wise mentor when starting out as a water polo coach many years ago. One of his thoughts has continued to guide what I do as a father and education professional.

When I got the first coaching assignment coaching the youngest of juniors, he asked me if I know what my job is and how important it is. “Of course, I have to teach them how to position their legs properly, swim with and control the ball, basics of throwing, then…” He cut me off and said “No, no, no. Your job is to make them fall in love with the game. If they do that, everything else will follow.”

My job as a teacher is for students to fall in love with learning, thinking and acting as capable, confident and responsible members of the society.

What a job it is indeed!


Happy Pills

This morning, I summarised the gist of Ira Socol‘s excellent (as always) post titled “Social change and American school” with the following tweet: “We naively charge schools to ‘change the world’ but fail to change basic idea about schools. Right?” Ira agreed.

Here is a my response in little more than 140 characters…

For many years, we have continued to bamboozle students, ourselves, parents and the rest of the society with edu-trivia (class sizes, scheduling, constant assessment and curriculum changes …). We have increasingly separated education from the society it operates within by way of growing specialisation, technicality and digression into what are seen as strictly ‘educational’ issues. I am continuously amazed by the sheer amount and voracity of intellectual effort and energy (translate – opportunity cost) spent on it. It is truly baffling.

Because we don’t really know what schooling stands for, we tend to charge schools with awesome and often conflicting responsibilities. We are asked to babysit and discipline, encourage independence while constantly telling students what to do, develop deep thinkers but get them to change classes and focus on something else when the bell sounds, rote learn ‘tradition’ but develop critical thinking, develop a sense of community but at all times know where they rank and more. All of this of course comes on top of adding, cooking, sewing, dancing, using computers responsibly, painting, woodworking, working out relationships etc…

Welcome to edu-panacea, the magic cure-all. “This should be a part of school curriculum” I often hear various interest groups sprouting on the radio. Sounds familiar?

Then, as Ira points out, “when this absurd plan inevitably fails, we blame our teachers, our administrators, our parents, our students, and often, we begin to argue that only privatization can solve this.”

If education is considered a ‘powerful shaper of our society’ (throw in everything from solving poverty to solving digital divide as Ira points out) why don’t we ask more often: “What sort of society do we want? How does schooling fit into this?”

A society where only a few can truly be educated and the rest socialized and distracted to keep in peace? Yes/No? Checked your school/classroom behaviour management strategies lately? I don’t want to presume too much here but if you are feeling ‘bad’ right now – don’t, you probably had a lot to ‘get through’ that day… I know I do that, often.

Or do you want a society where everyone is capable of being educated and living a free and responsible life, where they are free to take risks and decide their life chances not just tinker with trivial life choices set out for them as ‘destiny’. Are you teaching for such a society? Can’t but would like to? Fancy dreams? I know that too …

Which of these two oppositional views are you closer to. What are doing about enacting them? Why (not)?

Education has the enormous power of achieving amazing success and at the same time induce fear. Did you know it was once illegal to teach slaves how to read and write? Ever wonder why? What is illegal today? Not to teach to the exam?

I dare you bring this up at the next staff meeting. Even if you do, I think the intended dialogue would quickly digress into discussion of technical problems and bureaucratic accountability.

I fear that we as educators have been reduced to technical experts armed with strategies to ‘deliver education’ dictated to us by the ebb and flow of cultural, political and economic forces.

Let’s pull back a little from negotiating edu-trivia and negotiate something that will really matter 30 years after the senior school ball.

Oh, and please read Ira’s post, he tells things better than me. Gotta go to class, the bell has just rung … (*salivating, salivating*)

Best teacher

Elise is a dear colleague. She has been teaching (only) for two years (English and ESL courses) and is one of those teachers that make me want to push for some kind of merit system of pay and/or recognition. I could go on about Elise here but suffice to say – she is an absolutely brilliant teacher in many, many ways. Most of all, she respects and believes in kids she teaches.

During a conversation this afternoon, she told me a story how a student (often labelled by others as a ‘troublemaker’, ‘tough to teach’ … you know those, right?) challenged a poorly prepared and rude practicum teacher she had recently supervised. Here is the scene and the lines (abbreviated but the gist is there):

Continue reading Best teacher

You Yankee bastard


A few days ago, Phyllis Zimbler Miller, LA-based author of the novel Mrs Lieutenant about the lives of wives of officers in Vietnam War contacted me (via Twitter via Daniel Needlestone from UK!) and expressed interest in the We Remember Vietnam War project I am running with my Year 10 class. She asked me to write a guest post on her blog for her mostly US audience to raise awareness not only about our project but about the involvement of Australians in Vietnam. Here is what I wrote…I hope I got the start right?

You Yankee bastard

Continue reading You Yankee bastard

Just do it

octopus arm
This Thursday I had the privilege of hearing one of my dearest and friendliest, uber-connected locals Sue Waters giving a keynote on PLN at the EDNA workshop. Great stuff – she managed to bamboozle the audience and have them eating out of her hands at the same time! After her gig we shared a quiet half an hour and the word got onto people who just talk and ponder about change instead of getting their hands dirty. Right on!

Here is my “getting hands dirty” bit, the reason you hear about it is because I am asking for your help and your digital-to-flesh tentacles.

This term, my Year 10 Society & Environment class is looking at Vietnam War as a broad topic. After quite a bit of discussion, brainstorming and even arguments with and among the 22-strong, very ‘mixed ability’ (love a nasty euphemism, don’t you?) class, we thought it would be a good idea to do something that would actually matter beyond “a grade, a tick, and a move on”. So we got ourselves into the national ANZAC School Awards competition. Of course, it wouldn’t be Mr Lasic who planted the idea that we may want to gun for the ‘best use of technology’ category would it 🙂

The class lapped up the challenge. I have NEVER seen them this motivated, keen and engaged. As I write this, I have kids, some of whom who don’t have computers at home (that’s right, call them digital native hey?) going to public library or staying at home to fool around and research the background info CD I had provided. Curious about what we are doing? Here is the link, all explained there –

So what is it that we need help with? Put simply, we are creating a digital mash-up map in Google Earth with personal stories about the time of Vietnam War – a mix of primary and secondary source historical data.

If you remember the period and/or if you know someone who lived in that period (particularly in Australia or Vietnam) or know a ‘connector’ who knows others – we would love it if you could tell us one positive and one negative experience related about the (time of and after) Vietnam War.


Go straight to the simple form (full link, you can copy if you like)

OR email the class at

OR leave a comment below

Now here comes the tentacles part…!

Please pass the message/link to project on in a true Web 2.0 manner (but avoid spam of course) – blog, Twitter, wiki, email. Let’s not forget the old phone and face-to-face either here…

We have already had a few people responding – Roger Pryor (he has already blogged it!), “cpaterso” (a reciprocal Twitter follower and a generous teacher from Sydney whose full name I don’t even know yet (!) and he has already provided some hugely useful personal contacts and suggestions), to name just a couple… within the first ‘public’ day.

This isn’t the first time I am asking for such a thing I know (thank you Charlie Roy, you are a superstar!). Hopefully, I have or (will have) clocked up enough good karma to see the human web in action and show what people can do with technology these days so it matters. So…just do it!

A big please and an even bigger thank you all from me and my bunch of 14-year olds.

What is a Zoodle? Moodle at the zoo


Cool morning, sunny +26 C day and the fantastic Perth Zoo were our playground yesterday for a bunch of our Year 9 classes. The excursion is a centrepiece of the term looking at endangered species of SE Asia and particularly Indonesia.

Sadly, not all students came along for various reasons. We wanted to make the occasion memorable beyond a paper worksheet, give students a chance to show what they got out of the day and, importantly, share the day and its (in)sights with students who stayed back at school. Luckily, Mr Lasic was on hand with his laptop, Bluetooth and Moodle – what a nerd!

We encouraged students to take pictures and clips with their mobile phones and cameras throughout the day (considering of course other zoo visitors and rules on using imaging equipment). At the end of the day, we asked the kids to pair up and take a 30 – 60 sec ‘interview’ of their buddy answering the question: “What have I learnt at the zoo today?”

On the bus driving back to school, students sent me their videos and images from mobile phone via Bluetooth. Within 5 minutes about 15 clips and 30 images effortlessly landed in my inbox. But wait – there’s more… For kids who had taken shots with their digital camera, I have opened a picture gallery (a handy preset in Database activity) for them to upload their shots from home. They have started trickling in since.

A video database will have the kids’ video clips plus a recording of an excellent presentation given to us by the zoo’s education staff – all on Moodle of course.

All of these will be made so students can download them, edit and/or mash them up (the more advanced users will), comment on entries and rate them. I think a blog post on “Why and how should I care about endangered species” for each student should be a pretty sound assessment piece with kids constructing it using their own or their peers’ materials rather than a copy/paste job off zoo’s website.

One student asked me: “If we put zoo stuff on Moodle does that make it a Zoodle?”


This morning I looked at the draft school policy on mobile phones, Mp3, cameras and other ‘gadgets’ as lots of people like to bundle’em up. It makes me want to look for another job straight away – I’ll spare you the rant.

Using Moodle Glossary to stop spoonfeeding students

red spoon

I am getting a little tired of ‘spoon-feeding’ and doing the heavy lifting for my students.

So, in a fine constructivist tradition, here is a little activity I have just pulled off in my Philosophy and Ethics class using Moodle’s Glossary activity to get them thinking.

I got students into groups of three, one is the official scribe. In groups they discuss and come up with a definition/ explanation of their allocated concept. They must use examples to demonstrate their understanding of the concept (eg. ‘reason’, ‘valid argument’, ‘inference’…). The scribe enters the definition into the course glossary I had set up. Apart from text, students can add pictures, graphics, even embed videos to support their explanation using the Glossary’s HTML editor.

Students can edit entries at any time (maybe tonight from home, I remain hopeful 😀. They can comment on entries (“I think your starting premise is probably wrong so your final argument falls apart…” kinda thing). Students can also rate each other’s entries.

The idea is that the students throughout the year add and keep improving definitions of key concepts we use in class in a way that makes sense to them.

The rule is “if you can’t explain it to a friend sitting next to you it does not get published” (no copy/paste from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy here)

Thank you Moodle. Love teaching!

Help a sinner!

AhAs a coordinator of a senior school course called Career & Enterprise at our school I have decided to take a different tack on the often over-worked career exploration, life and work balance, resume writing, job finding and similar themes of the course in the past. This year the focus is on ICT and the way it has been changing our social and professional lives. The course aims to be innovative (eg. major projects are set in the community, students running ed-tech workshops for interested staff) and looks to sometimes challenge a few ‘sacred cows’ of mainstream schooling (eg. teachers and students will often switch roles). For brevity and those interested, here is the link to the syllabus.

‘That sounds interesting’ you may say but that ‘interesting’ bit could be like the (oft misused) Chinese proverb. Why? I am taking a big gamble here – and I need your help.

Continue reading Help a sinner!

Rita’s story

//, nothing to do with the book with the same name but there are, if unintended, similarities.

My teaching story has been inexorably linked with one colleague – Rita. Ever since she supervised me on my first teaching practicum many years ago our paths have managed to cross in different locations. Over the last three and a half years, we have shared a desk, made each other coffee, covered each other’s classes, team-taught on several occasions, laughed and cared about each other. With her grace, wisdom and impeccable respectfulness, Rita has helped me better understand and deal with students we teach. In return, I have helped her with a gentle lead into the crazy, hyper world of instructional technology.

Rita has been teaching mostly History and Society & Environment (old Social Studies) for 25 years across many public schools, first in Germany then in Australia. When I rang her tonight to ask for her permission to write about our conversation this afternoon she asked me not to disclose her age, but laughingly agreed to my ‘diplomatic’ description of her as “closer to retirement than to her first day in class”.

Continue reading Rita’s story