Being social in teaching and learning

Social MediaI have been using social media tools for about 11 years. My wife and I started teaching internationally in 1999 and finding an efficient and effective way to communicate with family and friends became a necessity as our personal and professional community grew. I created a personal blog in 2005 while we were working at our second international school to keep in touch with family, friends and former students and colleagues.

An international audience inspires

Although I incorporated very little of my initial foray in social media in my teaching and learning, I did realise that using an Internet-enabled communication tool gave me access to a massive audience. This was especially valuable in the context of international schooling where students’ extended family in other countries wanted to know how they were doing and what they were learning.

A direct result of this realisation was completing an action research project that aimed to study the effect on the learning outcomes of marine biology students when they were asked to create a public website on a sea creature of their choice. The students enjoyed that their work was on display for ‘everyone’ and it inspired them to take more care with the presentation of their work. However, not all the students enjoyed showing their learning in a digital format and the content management system (CMS) proved to be unintuitive too – it was the early days of the CMS as a content delivery system …


I taught an asynchronous online class, Oceanography, for the The Virtual High School for 2 years. The students in my class were from all over the world. The learning management system was not as well designed for collaboration as some of the ‘new’ social media platforms of that time. I encouraged my students to collaborate via Facebook and many of them told me during and after the course that the study groups they formed on Facebook proved to be very helpful in helping them stay motivated. Facebook helped them to get to know each other on a more personal level, something the official learning management system didn’t facilitate well.


I joined Twitter in 2008 and a whole new world of learning opened up to me. One of the challenges with teaching in international schools at that point was that I only networked with like-minded educators from other schools once every two years due to cost constraints and the massive difference between local and international schooling systems. Twitter enabled me to communicate in real time about a challenge or a problem, as mentioned by Brian Crosby1 in the Connected Educators video, enabling me to be more productive as a teacher. It also ensured that I stayed current with developments in the North American education system on a day to day basis.

To this day Twitter remains my favourite social media platform. I am trying to be thoughtful about who I follow on Twitter to ensure I get access to a broad range of ideas. It helps me to be a more reflective practitioner as I consider the impact of other people’s ideas on my understanding of effective teaching and learning – even if their ideas differ from mine.


As I started following some of the links people shared on Twitter, I discovered that many educators loved sharing best practice, teaching and learning frustrations and their dreams for the future of education via blogs. I started curating the RSS feeds2 of these blogs with Google Reader, a now-retired RSS feed reader. It provided me with a wealth of current ideas and thought in the world of education. It became a valuable source of teaching and learning research as my colleagues and I attempted to integrate educational technology effectively into our subject areas. I realised that it had great potential as a classroom resource for students and I encouraged and taught them to do their own curation for long-term research assignments.

I presented some of my ideas at a education conference for international educators in 2012 and you can still download (the now outdated) eBook from this website (just follow the links above to My Publications3).

The challenges

I will briefly discuss the challenging aspects of social media from a professional learning and teaching point of view.

Professional learning
I have found two challenges with learning via social media. The first is that learning from social media can be like drinking water from a fire hydrant: it is very easy to be overwhelmed with the deluge of information. You have to be very intentional about curating what you want to read. I have found that curation tools such as Feedly4 and Paper.li5 enable me to learn what I am interested in when I have time for it. Here are three web newspapers that I am curating with the help of

The second challenge with learning via social media is that social media can often be a lot of noise – and I say this at the risk of being part of that din. What I mean is this: since it is easy for everyone to publish her or his thoughts, a lot of social media is based on opinion and it is well-known that carefully crafted media can be used to influence people, whether the idea being propagated is evidence-based or not. Politicians do this very well …

Now I realise that you can prove anything with ‘evidence’, but I believe in education we have to be very deliberate about choosing to digest teaching and learning ideas that are based on evidence. It doesn’t mean we can’t travel in uncharted waters but we have to try to do this in an informed way. As I have mentioned in my previous post, I believe that the principles of sound teaching and learning have not changed much over the years. Alfie Kohn echoed this in an article6 that addressed the thoughtless use of educational technology in education. I quote (emphasis mine),

We can’t answer the question “Is tech useful in schools?” until we’ve grappled with a deeper question: “What kinds of learning should be taking place in those schools?” If we favor an approach by which students actively construct meaning, an interactive process that involves a deep understanding of ideas and emerges from the interests and questions of the learners themselves, well, then we’d be open to the kinds of technology that truly support this kind of inquiry. Show me something that helps kids create, design, produce, construct—and I’m on board. Show me something that helps them make things collaboratively (rather than just on their own), and I’m even more interested—although it’s important to keep in mind that meaningful learning never requires technology, so even here we should object whenever we’re told that software (or a device with a screen) is essential.

My biggest concerns with the use of social media in the classroom are around the privacy and safety of students. I realise we can teach our students digital citizenship skills and we are fortunate that groups like Common Sense Media has produced fantastic resources7 for this. However, do teachers want to be complicit in social media services’ openly acknowledged collection of users’ interests in order to increase their revenue?

Another challenge that can be addressed via careful planning and curation of content is the fact that social media platforms have been designed to connect people. Since students usually do not use social media within the context of education, it must not come as a surprise if students do not ‘stay on task’ when learning tasks do not have a very specific function for social media in a lesson.


Social media has become an integral part of modern society. It enables us to connect and collaborate with a global audience and it can contextualise teaching activities. When social media tools are used thoughtfully, they can add real value to any classroom.

References and notes:
1. Connected Educators. (18 September 2013). Retrieved 18 March 2016 from
2. “RSS (Rich Site Summary; originally RDF Site Summary; often called Really Simple Syndication) uses a family of standard web feed formats to publish frequently updated information: blog entries, news headlines, audio, video. An RSS document (called “feed”, “web feed”, or “channel”) includes full or summarized text, and metadata, like publishing date and author’s name”. Retrieved 18 March 2016 from
3. Blom, B.J. (2012). Social media for professional development and classroom research. Retrieved 18 March 2016 from
4. Feedly. Retrieved 19 March 2016 from
5. Retrieved 19 March 2016 from
6. Kohn, A. (16 March 2016). The overselling of educational technology. Retrieved 19 March 2016 from
7. Common Sense Education. Retrieved 19 March 2016 from

Photo credit: mkhmarketing via / CC BY

Education is trendy

IssuesIn my opinion, the fundamental principles of effective teaching and learning practices have not changed much over the years. Although John Hattie’s “meta-analysis of quantitative measures of the effect of different factors on educational outcomes”1 is controversial, I think the findings2 support what most “with-it”3 educators know constitute effective teaching and learning (timeless principles?).

The challenge is that education has always been political – just do a search in your favourite search engine to be overwhelmed with discussions on politics’ dance with education. It is also quite clear from Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on changing education paradigms4. He highlights that countries all over the world are busy with educational reform because they are trying to stay economically viable and culturally rooted in this era of globalisation.

Another significant takeaway from his presentation is that the schooling system that most of us have experienced as primary, secondary and tertiary students, and likely teach in at present, has been “designed and conceived for a different age”, i.e. “the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and the economic circumstance of the industrial revolution”4. However, we now live in the so-called “Knowledge Age” and “in the Knowledge Age, the ability to generate value through innovation (and the rapid creation of new knowledge) has become the basis for economic development”5. This is creating some trends in education and I am briefly going to discuss the effect of two of these trends on my practice.

Personalisation of learning

The industrial model of education is generally a “one size fits all” approach that does not have space for the “messiness” that is perceived to be part of the “rapid creation of new knowledge”5, a characteristic of the “Knowledge Age”. Although great teachers always have designed teaching and learning experiences that recognise the unique characteristics of each individual in the classroom, it has not been an easy task in a system that ‘standardises’ education for all. In its “Evaluation at a Glance: Priority Learners in New Zealand Schools” report of 2012, the Education Review Office (ERO) encourages New Zealand schools to be more intentional about making a shift towards student-centred learning. One can’t help but wonder how much of a shift has happened in our schools the past four years.

I have found that project-based learning activities in the technology learning area lends itself very well to a personalised, student-centred approach to teaching and learning. Instead of requiring every student in the class to complete a project that follows a “recipe” producing twenty to thirty exact replicas of the same product, students are assigned open-ended projects that they can personalise. One example is the trash-to-fashion unit that our year 8 students are busy with in term 1. Although all of the students are creating garments and accessories from recyclable materials, that is where the similarity stops. Every group is pursuing their own design. It may be interesting to explore whether I need to make technology even more personalised and student-centred by allowing them to choose project topics that are completely their own choice. What do you think?

A responsive and rich curriculum that uses knowledge to develop learning capacity

As mentioned earlier, it has become important in the Knowledge Age to “generate value through innovation”5. One concept that has been around for a number of years but gradually been getting more and more recognition7 as a valuable collaborative and thinking model to encourage innovation, is design thinking8. I have started using design thinking with great success with year 5 to 8 and 11 to 13 students in the technology learning area. I am excited about the possibilities I foresee for this problem-solving approach to develop all of the key competencies9 in my students. I also find that it is making the project-based learning activities that I have planned for my students manageable both for them and for me. Lastly, when design thinking is implemented properly, it is a more student-centred approach to learning and I believe it facilitates the personalisation of learning.

Design thinking can also be used by departments or schools to be more future-focused, or to identify and solve challenges they may be facing. If you are interested in design thinking, you can explore the topic by exploring these online resources.

To lifelong learning!

References and notes:
1. John Hattie. (17 May 2015). Retrieved 12 March 2016 from
2. Visible learning infographic. (2003, 2009). Retrieved 12 March 2016 from
3. “Withitness was Jacob Kounin’s word to describe a teacher’s ability to know what was going on at all times in his/her classroom. This can be as simple as making scanning looks around the room every once in awhile. Kounin said that is was not necessary for the teacher to know what is going on, but for the students to perceive that the teacher knows.” (26 October 2015). Retrieved 12 March 2016 from
4. RSA ANIMATE: Changing Education Paradigms. (14 October 2010). Retrieved 12 March 2016 from
5. Bolstad, R., Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., Bull, A., Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning & teaching: A New Zealand perspective. Wellington: Ministry of Education. Retrieved 12 March 2016 from
6. Evaluation at a Glance: Priority Learners in New Zealand Schools. (29 August 2012). Retrieved 12 March 2016 from
7. CORE Education’s Ten Trends 2016. Retrieved 12 March 2016 from
8. Welcome to the virtual crash course in design thinking. Retrieved 12 March 2016 from
9. Key competencies. (2014). Retrieved 12 March 2016 from

Photo credit: pasuay @ incendo via / CC BY

Exploring the impact of professional connections


I have been asked to reflect on the impact that two of my professional connections have had on my practice and professional community. I have done this after I have created a professional connections map which demonstrates my current and potential professional connections.

My professional connections map

I used an app called Ideament1 to create the following diagram. Out of respect for the privacy of my professional connections I have not expanded the map to make individuals identifiable. Click on the image for a larger version.

Professional Connections Map

The map is organised according to my communities of practice, identified in a previous post. I have decided to add my social media professional learning network (PLN) as a separate branch in order to show how it is connected to my three communities of practice, i.e. “teaching technology”, “teaching Christian Living” and “using digital technology”. I value my social media PLN but I find that I relate differently to professional connections that I only know from online interaction than to the people I rub shoulders with every day. I will now briefly reflect on the impact that two of my professional connections have made on my practice and professional community.

Year 0 – 2 Team Leader (Using digital technology → Junior Campus Teachers) 

The year 0 – 2 team leader and I regularly discuss the effective use of digital technology in her team. Since she and her team teach level 1 and 2 of the New Zealand curriculum, she asks questions about the use of digital technology that tend to be foundational to the pedagogically-sound use of it in the classroom. This has had a significant impact on my contribution to the professional communities I am part of.

A comment that she made in a conversation last year led me to complete a literature review that explored the question, “How might the use of digital technology enable active interaction with knowledge for students at a primary school”. This literature review helped me to better understand how to explain to all of my colleagues why and how we should use digital technology in the classroom. You can read my literature review by clicking here2.

These interactions show the rich conversations that happen when two people from two different levels of schooling are able to discuss pedagogical challenges. The year 0 to 2 team leader teaches a completely different level of the curriculum and she has a strong background in literacy. My background is in intermediate and high school science, mathematics and technology. We have been able to design an inquiry project that will explore whether doing things with knowledge using the iPad’s ability to record audio, photographs, video and annotated video will develop students’ thinking skills. One could argue that we are attempting through this inquiry “to connect the student with the abstract world of disciplinary knowledge (in this case science and literacy) and the real world of experience”3 using the possibilities that the iPad brings into the classroom. We believe the outcome of this inquiry can be beneficial for most, if not all, of my colleagues at Elim Christian College.

Head of Department for Digital Technology

My relationship with the head of department for digital technology at the senior school is another example of how professional connections across different levels of the curriculum can have a positive impact on one’s practice and the professional community you are part of.

The past two years I have been involved with starting an introduction to computer science track with years 5 to 8 students. The high school, years 9 to 13, have not been offering a computer science track due to staffing constraints. The head of department and I started discussing the possibility of trying to start such a programme for the year 9 students who showed an aptitude for the subject in year 8. This has led to a number of interesting developments.

I heard of the CS4HS conference4 at the University of Canterbury and I let the head of department know that funding was available for scholarships. The two of us applied for scholarships to attend the conference and both of us got accepted. The conference helped us realise that there are some unfortunate misconceptions about computer science as a learning area and as a consequence promising candidates didn’t consider it as a career. Computer science also suffers from a lack of diversity due to stereotyping that is rooted in misconceptions about the field. We reported this to the principal after the conference and he has encouraged us to raise an awareness of computer science amongst the high school students. A direct result from this directive is that I now team-teach year 11 to 13 design and technology students with the head of department. This relationship is enabling me to get a better understanding of NCEA requirements in this learning area, something that I am presently quite inexperienced in. It is challenging him to find ways to promote the computer science achievement standards with the older students, especially year 10 students, in an effort to grow the programme over the next few years.

Our connection has made a subtle but positive impact on our colleagues in other departments of the high school too. A number of them are now considering how they can integrate computer programming into their courses in an “interdisciplinary approach”5 and some of them also want to learn the basics, a win-win for both students and teachers.

So I encourage you to form professional connections with people outside of your teaching context. It will add value to your practice and the professional communities you are part of.

References and notes:
1. Ideament can be found in the iOS app store at
2. Blom, B. (2016). Knowing with digital technology. Retrieved from
3. Mathison, S. & Freeman, M. (1997). The logic of interdisciplinary studies. Retrieved from
4. CS4HS Christchurch 2015. Retrieved from
5. Mathison and Freeman3 define an “interdisciplinary approach” as “always consciously combining two or more disciplines and keeping them distinct and in focus. It has clear objectives that include both critical thinking skills and in-depth content, and is typically teacher directed but may welcome student input.”

Photo credit: Karwik via / CC BY-NC-ND

Weekend thoughts: Digital vs paper-based reading

Digital vs Paper-based reading

People have strong opinions about digital reading vs paper-based reading. It has produced thought-provoking videos like this1

In an article, “Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books“, the author states, “A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback”2. Although it would be interesting to know how the study was done because there are so many variables that could have had an impact on the outcome of the study, I think it comes down to what is the best tool for the job – the important question we need to ask ourselves about the use of any digital technology in education and our personal lives.

Sometimes the “old” is better than the “new”. For example, a friend of mine (who is a science educator) has switched from reading his Kindle in the evening to reading paper-based books instead (based on a study he has read) and his sleep has improved remarkably.

I am not terribly convinced that when we replace paper-and-pen-based technology with digital technology that it is always beneficial. How often do we take into account what science tell us about the best way to engage with a certain activity?

I wonder how many of our technological conveniences come into existence because of mankind’s insatiable desire for new things and other people’s desire to make money out of us …

Is it possible that many of us have engaged with digital reading because it is convenient and the marketing around digital reading has been cleverly focused around convenience, e.g. easy to carry books around, easy to pay, available to us via apps on our smart devices that we carry around everywhere, but we have not considered whether it does its advertised job well? I don’t expect a lot of studies to say anything about this. Companies like Amazon will not be terribly happy if scientific research shows that paper-based reading is superior to digital reading – let’s not kid ourselves: in the end it is all about profits.

I find it fascinating that it is quite likely that most(?) of the people who are designing digital technology today have had a school education with a massive focus on paper-and-pen-based technology. So how do they know that the digital “equivalent” is indeed an equivalent to the education they have had? I am not advocating industrial-model education by the way …

My point is this: if economics is ‘forcing’ the education community to use digital technology and the education community are not critically engaging with science to understand the advantages or disadvantages of said technology, we may unwittingly limit the next generation’s potential to make a meaningful contribution to society.

To conclude, here is more food for thought from Sherry Turkle3.

Ps. There is of course incredible irony in the way I am communicating this message … 🙂

References and notes:
1. Experience the power of a cookbook™ –
2. Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books. Retrieved from
3. Connected, but not alone? –

Photo credit: ©athrine via / CC BY-NC-SA

My communities of practice, version 2016

Community of practiceEtienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner defines a community of practice as follows.

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.1

My communities of practice

In light of the definition above and the diversity of my role (see below), it implies that I am part of three communities of practice.

  1. Using technology: This group shares a concern for the pedagofically-sound use of technology in teaching and learning. Members include all staff who interact with students in a teaching and learning capacity at school.
  2. Teaching technology: This group shares a concern for teaching and learning in the “technology” learning area. Presently, members include staff members who teach technology at our school as well as members of the “Computer Science Field Guide Teachers’ Group” that I belong to.
  3. Teaching Christian Living: This group shares a concern for “health and physical education”, specifically focusing on Christian Living (an important component of our special character). Members include all staff members who teach Christian Living at our school.

My interaction with my communities of practice are greatly influenced by the the core values of my profession.

The core values of my profession

In New Zealand, the core values of my profession are best described by the four fundamental principles in the “Code of Ethics for Certified Teachers”3, i.e.

  • Autonomy to treat people with rights that are to be honoured and defended
  • Justice to share power and prevent the abuse of power
  • Responsible care to do good and minimise harm to others
  • Truth to be honest with others and self.

Our school’s special character makes an additional contribution to these core values with, what we call, the ARISE framework4, i.e.

  • Achievement – I will achieve my best
  • Responsibility – I will be responsible
  • Inspiration – I will be an inspired thinker
  • Skills – I will use my skills to serve
  • Elim Special Character – I will be an example of Christ

One of the fundamental principles of the Christian worldview is to “love your neighbour as yourself”5 and love is described in the Scriptures as follows:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

As a teacher at Elim Christian College I aim to treat staff, students and their whãnau from this point of view since it upholds the principles of the Code of Ethics for Certified Teachers. Over the years it has developed in me the willingness to be open to criticism and to give the members of the school community permission to disagree with me. I have found that in most relationships where I treat the other person with honour and respect, the honour and respect are returned as the relationship develops.

This approach to relationships does require a level of transparency and vulnerability that has left me a little shaken at times, especially in highly confrontational situations. I have learned not to take criticism (whether it is positive or negative) personal but to reflect on whether it is reasonable or not.

Lastly, “love” (as it is defined above) inspires me to create an educational experience for my students that will motivate them to be lifelong learners who will be responsible agents of justice that make positive contributions to humanity’s interaction with each other and the environment.

It may be helpful to briefly discuss my specialist area of practice and how its function and purpose impact my communities of practice.

My specialist area of practice and its function and purpose

Elim Christian College is a state-integrated school with a designated special character. My role has two distinct functions, i.e. working with teachers on expanding their “technological knowledge” as defined by the TPACK model2, and teaching year 5 to 8 and year 11 to 13 students in the “technology” learning area and year 12 students in the “health and physical education” learning area.

I have had a keen interest in the interaction of teaching, learning and digital technology for years. I have spent most of teaching career in international school education. International schools and their stakeholders tend to use digital technology for two reasons, i.e. to keep in touch with family and friends and to increase access to teaching and learning resources (since the education system that the international school follows is often different to the education system of the host country). I have often found myself under-resourced but digital technology tools and resources on the Internet have enabled me to provide my students with a richer teaching and learning experience. As a consequence I have become the person staff members go to when they are looking for ideas on how to utilise digital technology in their teaching and learning.

Later in my career I have been trained as an online teacher and I have taught asynchronous online classes for a couple of years. This has enabled me to help teachers with the implementation of blended learning7 strategies, sometimes helpful in differentiating learning for students. I have run workshops on blended learning at a number of conferences (check the Conferences link in the navigation bar at the top of the page).

In a previous post I mentioned that the challenge with digital technology is that it is constantly changing, it doesn’t always do what you want it to do and you are never sure what exactly it is capable of. It is “neither neutral nor unbiased”2. Over the years I have become involved in leading this conversation as the members of my communities of practice and I try to consider how digital technology may enhance what we do. This has become my specialist area of practice.

It will be interesting to see where this journey leads in 2016. To lifelong learning and beyond!

References and notes:
1. Wenger-Trayner, E., & Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015). Introduction to communities of practice: A brief overview of the concept and its uses. Retrieved from
2. Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (2009). What is technological pedagogical content knowledge? Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(1), 60-70.
3. Code of Ethics for Certified Teachers. Retrieved from
4. Elim Christian College Junior Campus. Retrieved from
5. Matthew 22:39, NIVUK. Retrieved from
6. 1 Corinthians 13:4-6, NIVUK. Retrieved from
7. Blended Learning. Retrieved from

Photo credit: Bob Dass via / CC BY