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:
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’
Found on

The challenge of course design


At the start of the school year I was asked to be part of the intermediate arts rotation and it was decided that I would create a digital photography curriculum that could be repeated every 5 weeks with a different group of students. Groups meet once a week for 90 minutes.


After some research I found a great resource, Tony Northrup’s DSLR Book: How to create stunning digital photography ( and I have built an introductory course around this. Students do not have to purchase the textbook. It is basically a teacher resource only. However, I do tell students that I am using this book as the main resource for the class and they are encouraged to buy it themselves if they develop a keen interest in digital photography.

Presentation of lessons via Google Sites

Lessons are laid out in a Google Site using the Announcements template for each week’s lesson. All lessons are displayed in a section called ‘News’ in the website. Lessons are ‘released’ on a weekly basis and until release they are kept in an Archive section of the website that is not visible to the students. The front page of the Google Site has an Announcements widget embedded that shows the latest lesson.

Lesson structure

  1. The first lesson has been used to set students’ folders up in Google Drive, getting to know their camera and doing a basic exercise to identify subjects or topics to photograph. At first I had the students set up folders called Photography and Journal. The Photography folder was intended for storing students’ best photos since they were encouraged to take lots of photos but only keep 3 to 5 photos when they were done with the lesson. The Journal folder was intended for writing short explanations of why they chose the 3 to 5 photos every lesson.
    • Reflection 1: I had found that the folder creation and consequent organisation were confusing to students. So I have consolidated the folder creation to a Best Photos folder only. The Best Photos folder contains one folder for every week’s lesson. This folder contains the best photos of the week as well as the explanation of why those photos are the best photos of that week.
    • Reflection 2: Recently Google Classroom has been released. Since Google Classroom has a Turn In function, I have stopped asking students to use the folder structure above since the Turn In function makes the submission of the best photos and the explanation of why they are the best photos much more intuitive, i.e. the tool fades into the background and the focus returns to the learning. I will still ask students to create a Photography folder in Google Drive so that they have one place where they can store all of their photos.
  2. During the second lesson students watch a short video clip by Tony Northrup that gives them 6 quick tips to improve their photography right away. Students also get the opportunity to share any photo editing apps they have used on their devices. I allow students right from the start to use photo editing apps to ‘improve’ the quality of their photos. After students have watched the video, they use the rest of the class to go and take some ‘thoughtful’ photos, i.e. not just randomly shoot subjects but try to identify subjects that are worth shooting. They need to pick 3 photos from the 20+ photos they have taken and write me why they are choosing those photos.
    • Reflection: I am trying to train students to take more time when they are taking photographs since careful composition takes time. This works well for most students, but I find some students are disengaged because they are not able to internalise the value of taking more time to take photos. I need to find a way to draw them into this exercise. I will possibly have to think of contextualising the lesson in some way, i.e. allow them to identify a specific topic they are interested in to take photographs of.
  3. In the third lesson I briefly introduce students to five principles of composition, i.e. rule of thirds, rule of space, having a focal point, simplifying a composition and changing your angle of view. A copy of what I say is published on the Google Site for students’ reference.
    • Reflection: This lesson has worked well most of the time. Initially I asked students to submit 5 examples that showcase each of the 5 principles of composition. Students did not have to submit a written explanation for their choices. This has proved too much for students to accomplish despite encouraging them to submit the same photo for each principle of composition whenever possible (the encouragement being that a great photo showcases most of the principles of composition). I will reduce this to three in future but ask students to explain their choice. This will encourage them to think about their thinking. Students will possibly have to use an app that allows them to annotate their photos, e.g. Notability or Skitch.
  4. In the fourth lesson students are introduced to 5 more principles of composition, i.e. showing scale, the use of lines, the use of patterns, the use of natural frames and symmetry. Once again a written copy of the lesson is published on the Google Site for students’ reference.
    • Reflection: This lesson works well too. Students were asked to submit 2 examples of each principle explained in this lesson with an explanation of why the photos chosen showcase the relevant principle of composition. However, I find that at this point students are starting to fall behind. For some reason students do not see unfinished assignments from the arts rotation as homework …
  5. In the fifth lesson we consolidate the previous 4 weeks’ work and I work with students to ensure they have completed all of their assignments. Students who are finished with all of the work are encouraged to find more subjects to take photos of or to take time to learn more about the photo editing apps they have been using.
    • Reflection: This lesson has proved to be an important lesson to help students complete the unit.

Overall reflection

I am looking for ways to enable students to own their learning, i.e. develop skills to manage self, and to add differentiation but ensure students are able to accomplish the learning intentions. Most of the tasks in the lessons outlined above are relatively open-ended but with clear expectations. This encourages managing self and adds a level of differentiation to the curriculum since students will use unique pathways to accomplish the learning intentions.

Recent research to understand the dynamics of MOOC’s have shown what most experienced teachers know: when the content is delivered in a modular way, students find the accomplishment of learning intentions more manageable. This got me thinking that if I package the principles of composition as mini modules and allow students to choose their own learning path through the modules, it may personalise the learning experience more and so both contextualise and differentiate the learning for the students.


I plan to redesign the course. During the first two weeks students will start the course in a prescriptive way since this will set them up for success.

  • Week 1: Set up Google Drive, get to know your camera and possibly show the 6 Quick Tips video by Tony Northrup.
  • Week 2: Explain the rule of thirds (since this is probably the most fundamental principle of composition), give students an opportunity to develop a basic mastery of the rule of thirds and allow students to share their favourite photo editing apps. Students will also be given an opportunity to play around with these apps and use them to create a photo from a photo they have taken that showcases the rule of thirds.
  • Week 3 – 5: Post 9 mini modules on Google Sites that students can complete in any order but they have to complete 3 modules a week. Each module will have a mini video presentation that will be accompanied by a text explanation. Students will have to post their completed work in the Digital Photography Google Classroom.

I hope to post some feedback later. To lifelong learning!

The importance of timelines


I have the amazing privilege of team-teaching year 7 and 8 technology in a modern learning environment (one of a few things I do as technology activator). It is an exciting journey that I absolutely love because we have observed that modern learning environments (MLE’s) have positive affective outcomes on students and MLE’s have a tendency of exposing areas of improvement in your teaching. In this post I want to reflect specifically on the importance of setting a clear timeline for the learning in project-based learning tasks for intermediate students in MLE’s.

It may be helpful to give my reflection some context. At this point we do not have a space that has been purpose-built for technology, so we have to use a general purpose modern learning environment to accomplish the learning. Almost all of our students have iPads although some students are using Android tablets and Netbooks (a.k.a. mini laptops). Technology class for each year level is scheduled once a week for a double period. We have chosen a project-based learning approach to technology. The students get a different project every term. This term the students are building bridges.

We attempted to put together a unit that would take students on a logical, manageable progression through the design process using ’stations’ since we did not have enough tools for the whole group. We introduced some of the principles of bridge design with an app called Bridge Constructor that was available for both iOS and Android. Students then made a sketch of their bridge based on a set of guidelines they were given. The next step was to show them as a group how to make a basic technical drawing on a 1:1 scale of their bridges that consisted of a frontal and bird’s eye view. As individual students completed an adequate technical drawing, they were able to get a 1.8 m 12 mm x 12 mm piece of wood to mark out the pieces of their bridge for sawing at a measuring station. They would then move on to the sawing station and afterwards they would hammer and glue the bridge together at the construction station (most students are at this stage at the moment). We also created an additional bridge design task for students who were in-between stations in which they solved a contextualised challenge that required a bridge to be built. Students do not have a definite timeline for the project’s mileposts, i.e. research, sketch, technical drawing, measuring, sawing, construction, but they are reminded at the start of every technology class of what needs to be accomplished.

One can argue that although this task is open-ended, it is scaffolded to make the task manageable. Furthermore, the absence of a definitive timeline for the project’s mileposts enables differentiation since students tend to accomplish the different tasks at different speeds. However, I have observed two aspects of this approach that concern me.

  1. What does an engaged student look like in a technology class in a MLE? Almost all of the students appear to enjoy their time in technology but I often see students in conversations that have little to do with the task they are busy with. Does this represent the workplace? Could it be that if there is a clearer timeline that students will be more focused?
  2. When you don’t set a timeline for the mileposts in a project-based learning task, some students just don’t seem to be able to progress through the task no matter how much positive encouragement they are given. Unless you take their hands and walk them to the milepost step-by-step, they just don’t seem to be able to get there. I am wondering about what the root cause is for this lack of self-management skills. Either these skills have not been taught or students are not developmentally ready for the level of self-management required. The latter is quite possible since individual students’ rates of academic, social and physical development are quite unique at this age. One size definitely doesn’t fit all.

So I want to propose that well-structured problem-based learning tasks are excellent learning opportunities for intermediate students as long as they are accompanied by clear timelines that include definite dates for the mileposts to ensure students make adequate progress and utilise the time they are given for learning relevant to the task. So, this is what I intend to change in future term plans.

Am I realistic? Any other comments?