Walking the talk

Please walk on the grass ...I have just completed week 2 of The Mind Lab experience and I have a number of ideas I have to reflect on. The readings I had to do this week also took me down some rabbit trails. So now I have more than enough to write about and too little time … the lament of many a teacher blogger. Is this what my students feel like? 🙂 So let’s get to the first reflection.

How is your understanding of the purpose of education visible in your classroom?

Before you jump into my ramblings try answering that question for your classroom. Do it …

Perhaps you will start, like me, with what your understanding of the purpose of education is. I briefly reflected on the purpose of education in “Room for improvement“:

In my opinion, the purpose of education is to equip my students with robust critical thinking skills that will enable them to come up with creative, collaborative solutions to the challenges they will face in life. This also implies teaching them the communication skills they will need both to collaborate and to explain their creative solutions to others.

Please read that statement in the broadest possible sense. It goes far beyond employment since there is far more to life than just a job …

Now for the tough part: will this purpose be evident when you attend one of my classes?

  1. Is there a positive classroom atmosphere that facilitates authentic collaboration?
  2. Do my students regularly work on learning activities in my class that are challenging enough that they cannot find ‘the answer’ in Google?
  3. Do my students see failure as a learning opportunity?
  4. Do I actively promote the value of thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication?
  5. Do I actively teach the skills related to thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication?

My responses to these questions are (in order):

  1. Yes, most of the time. Teaching and learning don’t really work without it …
  2. Not as much as I know they have to. However the learning areas I am teaching in, technology and the social sciences, lend themselves to more open-ended assignments.
  3. Unfortunately my students struggle with this one and it gets worse the older they get. Without getting too political, standardised testing encourages a focus on an excellent end-product instead of the process to get there. One could argue that if students understood what an excellent ‘process’ looked like, the end-product would be excellent too …
  4. I am more successful in promoting this when I teach in our school’s modern learning spaces than when I am teaching in a single cell classroom. There is something energising about a team-teaching approach in a modern learning space …
  5. I think I have grown a little slack in this area … although I try to choose assignments that indirectly ‘force’ students to develop these skills, I believe being more intentional about teaching these skills and then letting my students practice it as the year goes on may be more effective.

I want to encourage you to come visit my classroom and let me know whether I have been honest with myself … I can see all sorts of inquiry goals come from this reflection … 🙂

To walking the talk … and lifelong learning!

Knowledge is …

Human BrainLast week I started a Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital & Collaborative Learning) at The Mind Lab. One of the highlights of our four hours together was a discussion on the definition of ‘knowledge’. Our group came away with two visuals and one video to showcase our understanding of ‘knowledge’. Here is a copy of our pen-and-paper collaborative effort:

Knowledge isWe were also given the task of creating a video to show our understanding of knowledge and this is the result of our efforts (compliments to Amara who put everything together after the session since we ran out of time during the session):

These activities challenged me to review what I believed knowledge might be. As a Christ follower, I have to turn to the Bible first.

Knowledge according to Scripture

It is incredibly hard to compress what the Bible teaches about knowledge in a small space. So here are some points that stand out for me.

  • The Bible teaches that God is the source of all knowledge (1 Samuel 2:3), His knowledge is perfect (Job 37:16), He teaches us knowledge (Psalm 94:10) and that the ‘fear’ (worship) of the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). In addition, we are taught that knowledge is more valuable that wealth and that there is a strong link between wisdom, understanding and knowledge (exemplified in the book of Proverbs). As you read through the references to ‘knowledge’ in the New King James Version, it becomes clear that there are different kinds of knowledge, i.e.
    • moral knowledge / knowledge of God’s ways (the most commonly referenced example of knowledge in Scripture)
    • artistic and skill-based knowledge
    • knowledge of God as a Person
    • knowledge that enables wise decision-making
    • informational knowledge
    • knowledge gained from observing the way you and other people live
    • knowledge of the natural world
    • God’s knowledge of each one of us
    • knowledge gained from our parents and elders
    • historical knowledge
  • When Jesus went back to join God the Father (Matthew 28), He told His disciples that He is not leaving them alone but the Holy Spirit will be with them. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of knowledge (Isaiah 11:2) and He teaches us all things (John 14:26).
  • Both knowledge and the lack of knowledge can be dangerous, either “puffing us up” or bringing us under God’s judgement.

So where does this leave me? What is knowledge? I have to come back to Proverbs 1:7.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction.

As a Christian I believe that God has created me for a reason and a purpose. I will find fulfilment when I “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). I don’t have to worry about material things because God knows what I need. This means that when I teach I need to help my students look at the world and all its people with wonder and awe and help them realise that each one of them has a unique calling and purpose under God. When they aspire to search this out, they will go on a most exciting educational journey that will prepare them to make a difference in their family, their community, their country and possibly the world.

To lifelong learning!

Room for improvement

Room for improvement

I had the amazing privilege of attending the Apple Distinguised Programme and Schools Leadership Summit of Australia and New Zealand with Shaun Brooker in Adelaide at the end of last term. I have been fortunate to attend a number of Apple Education events in my teaching career. I always walked away feeling enriched and challenged to be a more innovative teacher. Here are the two main takeaways from this learning experience.


In a post-dinner discussion, a few of us bounced some ideas around. One of the ideas was around SAMR and the existence of ‘research’ to back the model up: is it possible that we (me?) misunderstand its function and purpose? Some thoughts, each roughly contained in a paragraph and some spilling over into the next paragraph …

The SAMR model is an instrument that can to be used to reflect on the use of technology at a school. As such, I believe it is unhelpful to get bogged down in arguments around whether research ‘validates’ the model or not. Perhaps it is more helpful to consider whether Dr. Puentedera’s idea indeed can assist us with thinking more deeply about how we are integrating technology.

The ‘danger’ of the SAMR model is that it can be misused as a ‘learning theory’ of sorts to aspire to. In other words, when it is used as a rating scale to judge whether a teacher or school knows how to integrate technology effectively and ‘substitution’ is judged as a ‘fail’ and ‘redefinition’ is judged as a ‘pass’, the model is used incorrectly. It merely provides the teacher or school with an instrument to evaluate whether educational technology has transformed a learning experience or not.

Not all learning activities have to transform learning but if all teaching activities that involve educational technology only enhance learning, it is possible that not all of the learning potential offered by educational technology has been tapped into.

A question that I think often sits in the back of teachers’ minds when ‘transformation’ of education is mentioned, is why we want educational technology to transform learning because it seems to imply that there is something ‘wrong’ with the present state of teaching and learning. A question that naturally flows from the previous question is how ‘wrong’ is defined and then we also have to ask what is the ‘correct’ definition for teaching and learning and who has decided what that definition is.

Call me an uninformed optimist if you want, but I don’t think there is something inherently ‘wrong’ with teaching and learning but I do think we are doing our students a great disservice if we are not constantly thinking about how we can use technology to enhance and transform learning. This leads me to ask yet another question: what is the purpose of education? Your response to this question will of course influence your reaction to my comments.

In my opinion, the purpose of education is to equip my students with robust critical thinking skills that will enable them to come up with creative, collaborative solutions to the challenges they will face in life. This also implies teaching them the communication skills they will need both to collaborate and to explain their creative solutions to others.

So why use the technology at our disposal in the classroom? When we look at the world our students are entering, it is increasingly making use of technology in the areas of critical thinking, creative pursuits, collaboration and communication. We therefore have to equip them with the knowledge they need to use society’s ubiquitous technology competently.

I also believe that this competence goes beyond skills and it has to include an ethical understanding of the impact of technology on society. As a Christian I believe the Bible provides the moral framework needed to use technology to the glory of God and the spiritual and physical benefit of others.

Telling great data stories

Before I attended the Apple Distinguished Programme and Schools Leadership Summit for Australia and New Zealand, I have had some doubts around the purpose of teachers collecting data to show to others what their students are doing in their classes.

Don’t understand me wrong: I have no problem with assessment as a construct, I hold to the importance of running a transparent learning plan and I believe in the importance of students having the freedom to show their learning in ways that recognise the uniqueness of each individual. I also believe it is important that students have a record of their learning to show how they mature and develop.

My issue has been with what I perceive as a modern tendency of people in different industries to ‘show off’ how good their work is. I have a firm belief that the education of my students is not about me getting recognition for what they are doing. It is about my students being encouraged and equipped to make a meaningful contribution to society. I have therefore done very little over the years to tell my story of my students’ learning. My students have told their own learning stories – I don’t think there is anything wrong with that but perhaps there is a place for me to tell my side of the learning story as well … ?

One of the workshops I attended at the summit has encouraged me to revisit my reluctance to tell my version of my students and I’s learning story. It can be argued that telling this story is important. “But why” you may ask?

Telling stories is intricately part of who we have been created to be. In Genesis 1 we read that God has created us in His likeness. God reveals Himself in His story (History) that He has given us through the Scriptures. It follows, therefore, that if God communicates with us by telling stories and we have been created in His likeness, then telling stories is the best way for us to communicate with God and others. He has made us that way! Arguably Jesus’s most effective teaching strategy was using stories to communicate what He wanted His followers to learn.

We know from experience that there is nothing as engaging as a great story. We can learn from each other stories. I have come to realise that telling the story of our students’ learning is a great (the best?) way to communicate the process and results of learning with our students, their families and communities, and our colleagues.

Now the challenge ahead of me is to learn how to tell a great story with my teaching and learning data so that it

  • has a positive message
  • enables my listeners to do meaningful reflection and
  • respects the role players’ privacy (where the role players might be students, colleagues or anyone else who has contributed to the storyline)

To using technology to tell great stories!

What does a Christian school mean to me?


Murray Burton, the principal at Elim Christian College, asked me to answer the question “What does a Christian school mean to me” at our school’s heritage assembly on 16 February 2015. Here is what I said.

A Christian school is a place where God enables me to fulfill the responsibility He has given me to talk about the incredible inheritance we have through Jesus Christ.

Hear, O [people of God]: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, NIV)

See, the people of God are in incredible debt to our Creator. At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved … We lived in malice and envy … But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And [we have] to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. (Titus 3:3-8, NIV)

A Christian school is a place where we devote ourselves to doing what is good, not because doing good gets us in heaven: accepting what Christ has done on the cross does.

But doing good, inspired by the gospel, is excellent and profitable for everyone: my family, my friends, my community, my city, my country, the world.

So a Christian school is an oasis on the journey of life, a place of safety where students are prepared for the challenges ahead. My time as student or teacher is the most meaningful when I realise that whether I am in maths class or P and P, playing foursquare or volleyball, writing a story or solving a physics puzzle, I am where God wants me to be right now and I give Him glory when I give ‘my utmost for His highest’.

Reflection on Term 3 Christian Living 12

I teach a subject called Christian Living with a team of two other educators. Our students are in Years 12 and 13. There are three tutor groups (for my North American friends, this is the term used in New Zealand to describe ‘homeroom classes’) in each year level. Each of the teachers discuss a topic of their choice with a new tutor group each term, so rotating through all three groups in each year level. Since the Year 12’s and 13’s are only in school for about three weeks in Term 4, we plan on doing big group discussions with both year levels in the last term as we wrap up the year’s classes.

In Year 12, I tried to develop a Christian apologetic around the use of technology. A lot of us do not intentionally think through the positive and negative effects that technology can have on our lives. In this class I attempt to develop students’ thinking around this topic because thinking matters …

One of the ways you can empower your students to contribute to the teaching and learning of a subject is to ask them for feedback. Yesterday I gave my Year 12’s an opportunity to provide me with some feedback on the term’s topic and here are some of my reflections on their responses.

What did I learn?
  • Technology (that delives social media and music) can be distracting if it is not used wisely. I have to institute tech breaks to help it not take over my life.” When prompted, many students will tell you right away that their communication technology, such as smartphones or other Internet-enabled devices, are distracting. However, our students do not always get that prompt and as a consequence do not make time to think through the ramifications of the thoughtless overuse of technology. I am thankful that my students are not only able to verbalise the possible problem but they are also aware of a solution.
  • Technology will replace some jobs.” I showed them a video about automation that appeared a few weeks ago on Reddit and YouTube. Although this video is rather one-sided, it is also quite sobering. The Christian worldview gives a lot of hope in this scenario though. God is sovereignly in control and the source of all wisdom. As Christians we can trust Him to provide us with the wisdom we need to take up meaningful employment for His glory. He will also give us the wisdom we need to create new employment opportunities as the world changes. You can watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU
What is the best thing?
  • Coffee and lollies.” Some of the best conversations in life happen around food. At times I try to bless the students with something to eat and drink, especially at the start of the term. This helps to establish a positive classroom atmosphere for the rest of the term.
  • Discussions.” Students love to be given an opportunity to have their say. It can be hard at times to keep discussions on track and discussion lessons usually require careful planning and execution to work well.
  • Relaxed atmosphere.” Christian Living is not an academic class. This was an intentional decision since we don’t want students to compartmentalise what they learn in this class. Our Christian beliefs define who we are and making it an academic pursuit at this point of their personal development can be counter-productive. I try my best to keep conversations and topics positive and emphasise to them that they are allowed to relax a little while they are attending this class. I believe this creates a non-threatening environment that is more productive for having meaningful discussions and dialogue about Christian life topics.
What was the worst thing?
  • Some of the videos we have watched are too long.” I found these comments quite fascinating. I only showed one 15 minute video the whole term. All other videos were around 5 minutes. I have two thoughts about this. It is interesting what this comment may be saying about students’ attention span and how teachers (like me) use video in their instruction. Brain research has shown that older students have an attention span of about 10 minutes. I am reminded that if I use video in the classroom I have to plan to break the video up into shorter segments. This will ensure that I keep their attention and help them process the video content more effectively. With regards to attention span, are our older students’ attention span getting shorter due to the way they interact with media on their devices?
  • We didn’t do much.” I will be first to admit that my course is not content heavy. Most of it is built around four questions we need to ask our technology to help us understand technology’s impact on us. I want to ensure that these questions become part of the students’ thinking, so I take my time covering each one of them. I am of the opinion that we as teachers are sometimes in such a rush to ‘cover content’ that we don’t allow new ideas to take root in our students’ thoughts. I am wondering whether the comment highlighted comes from a perception my students have about learning that they base on the experience they have in their academic classes, i.e. learning equals the convering of lots of content. I may be able to create the perception of a ‘full’ course if I allow them to come up with some of the discussions topics. It may be that the course is not contextualised enough.
  • Reading long articles are boring.” Once again a fascinating comment. In all fairness, when I asked students to read articles in class as background for upcoming discussions, the articles were at most 5 minute reads at their reading level. For the record, I was very intentional about requiring students to read non-fiction articles since most students would be faced with this kind of learning activity when they moved on to tertiary education. I tried to pick interesting articles but it showed that what I might consider interesting was not necessarily what the students considered interesting. I am not sure how to remedy this challenge.
  • The discussion about technology was too negative. It didn’t focus on the positive changes technology is making in society.” I was very intentional about pointing out the negative aspects of technology use. The positive uses of communications technology are often highlighted by the media whereas the negative aspects are neglected – in my opinion. However I agree, that in my effort to help students see the impact of technology on our lives, I have to be careful not to leave them with the perception that technology is bad. I didn’t talk enough about the fact that technology was a creative pursuit and that creativity is rooted in the character of God. As such, it is hardwired into each one of us because Genesis 1:26-27 state ‘Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’
  • Not enough time was given for this class in the schedule.” This class is during the first period on a Monday. The Monday morning assembly often runs long and as a consequence the class is much shorter than other classes. When this happens, I have to adapt lesson plans on the fly and I have to be honest that these adaptions are not always successful. We have also missed a few Mondays due to other activities that Year 12’s need to attend. Since I only see them once a week, this comment from them is justified. I am not sure how to remedy this challenge either.
Would you like to discuss the impact and influence of technology in another way?
  • More discussions with for / against arguments.” I hope to include more class-wide discussion topics in future. I will source some ideas from the students too to ensure these discussions are more contextualised. Most of the course’s discussion activities were based around small groups this term.
Some last personal reflections
  • One of the students commented that it was nice to talk about technology with technology. I have used Google Apps for Education and Padlet in this course with limited success this year since not all students bring devices to class and the portable computer lab is not always available. I hope to make better use of technology tools next year. This may also provide me with a natural opportunity to talk about the positive aspects of the use of communications technology.
  • Not all students have developed an apologetic about the use of technology. Most of them have started this process though. I have to create a better framework for them to develop this apologetic.
Any thoughts or comments?
To lifelong learning!


Image: ‘Circle Of Light (Lens Flare), Wisley’http://www.flickr.com/photos/53196512@N07/5444490113
Found on flickrcc.net