Why I Teach (Part 2)

Half of the reason I write this blog is to be honest and open about my own personal learning journey. (The other half is catharsis!)

With that in mind, here's a letter I got recently from one of my students. It is this kind of thing, more than anything, that motivates this often tired and sometimes grumpy teacher.


We most certainly will, James. Now go out and change the world!


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Against the stream

Sean Hampton-Cole:

The best teacher I know shares her thoughts on ‘streaming’ classes. Definitely worth a close read…

Originally posted on Buzzing Blue Room:


Every teacher has a few classes that will forever be special to them. My very first Grade 10 Art class was one of these. My first class of boys was another. These are classes where things just click. The students get you, and you get them. These are the classes where you soon share little insider jokes with your students, where conflict is almost non-existent and teaching is easy.

I had a class like that this year. I love and adore them on every possible level and, yesterday, when I had to say goodbye to them, I cried. They were funny and charming and insightful. I know it will be a good few years before I have a class this special again. I will have other classes, and there will be successes and failures. It will be good. But they will not be my 10Cs.

Here, however, is the rub.

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Guest Post: Creativity Takes Time (Shelley Peringuey)

Creativity Takes Time

(My Introductory Lesson to English 2014 – By Shelley Peringuey)


The Lesson – Part 1

Two of my objectives this year were to:

  • inspire creative and critical thinking within my students, and
  • encourage philosophical debate within the classroom.

I hoped to teach my classes that they need not think that they have to give the “right” answer, rather I would love for them to come up with a better answer by approaching the question in a unique and creative way, using their ability to think for themselves rather than simply regurgitating facts.

I found a fantastic video on YouTube that highlighted the importance of taking one’s time in order to be creative. So, stealing the ideas from the video, this is what I asked my classes to do:

  • I gave each student a piece of paper like this and asked them to complete the picture in 10 seconds.


  • The very vast majority completed the picture by doing something like this:


  • I then gave them the exact same picture but told them that it had to be completed in 10 minutes. I asked them to use all the time provided, use as many colours as possible and turn the picture into whatever they pleased. While my students worked we listened to Pharrell Williams’ Happy and it was really satisfying to see even my senior students coloring and drawing like they were back in the Prep School! Here’s a sample of what they produced:


  • In the last bit of the ten minutes, I asked them to think about what I could possibly be trying to show them by getting them to complete this exercise. At the end of the time, they all had to raise their drawings so that everyone could have a look. Then we chatted about the purpose of the exercise. In every class, it took only a few misses before someone hit the nail on its proverbial head and realized that the purpose was to show that creative thought needs time. I then showed them the YouTube clip.

The video ends with a wonderful statement that creativity is inspired by “the playfulness, the freedom and the fun”, which really resonates with me, and I briefly discussed with my classes my belief that they will learn more if they have fun and feel free to explore their own ideas.


The Lesson – Part 2

Ok, so we were all on the same page as far as creativity was concerned, but I wanted to take it a little further. Towards the end of last year the English Department had the opportunity to attend a course on Philosophy for Children, where we were taught some wonderful techniques to encourage philosophical debate and discussion in the classroom. These types of discussions hone one’s ability to think both creatively and critically, and so I thought I would allow my students to dip their toes in the pool of philosophical thought that I am hoping we will dive into this year.

We started with two “pre-gymnastic” exercises that should always form the precursor to a philosophical discussion. In pairs, my students were given two minutes to answer the question “Am I creative?”. The curveball was that the person listening was not allowed to respond in any way (nodding, prompting, grunting in agreement) but rather had solely to listen while the other person spoke for two minutes. It made for many awkward silences, but focused the students on the task of listening and communicating effectively. They made the observation that when they are not trying to formulate a response, they actually listen more “completely”. They swapped roles and the question I gave them was “Is creativity born or bred?”. Surprisingly, the majority found this much easier to discuss as they said it was not as personal as the previous question.

So, once we had limbered up our minds and voices, I asked my classes to move their chairs so that we formed a complete circle. I sat with them, on their level, and we began our first philosophical discussion of the year. I asked, “At school, in your experience, are you taught to think creatively or critically?” The conversations flowed so smoothly, and everyone was very respectful in allowing someone to finish speaking before they spoke. We tried not to put up hands, but rather to speak into the gaps created in the conversation. I did not lead the discussion, but rather became a contributor like the students. I did perform the role of directing the conversation and summing up ideas when the pace flagged a little. The conversation was eye-opening and a number of students proposed that creativity is bred out of them at school, but that’s a blog for another day!

I concluded my opening lesson by briefly reflecting on both the drawing exercise and the discussions. I said that the point of the exercise is not only to see that creativity needs time to take root and flower, but that we must not always be stifled by the belief that there has to be “right”answer. They drew a clock because they thought that was what I expected of them and thought that was the correct thing to do. But when they could take their time and think both creatively and critically, they turned the mundane into something amazing.

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OK, your nominations for most under-rated movie of the modern era?

Did you mention ‘Unleashed’?

Not many do.

The movie stars Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins and Jet Li. It’s this last actor, I think, which turns most serious movie-watchers away. But it shouldn’t. Although he hardly says anything, Mr Li is as good as his co-actors. Here’s how an IMDB user summarizes the plot of Unleashed:

At its heart, Unleashed is a simple, tender exposition of the issue of fate vs. free will.



These are some of my favorite quotes from the movie:

“Bet you’ve never had a dream in your life, have you? Must be peaceful.”

“Piano’s are like people, you pound on a person, they get out of tune.”

“Music’s gotta flow from within. Can’t flow if you’re stiff. Just relax.”

“If you can’t do what I’ve trained you to do, what use are you?”

“Victoria and I are not big on asking questions, when a person is ready, they’ll give their answers.”

“Should I get him?”

“No, let him get himself.”

“Maybe he doesn’t know how.”

“Well, let’s give him the opportunity to learn, nothing like self-discovery to turn a boy into a man.”

“She kissed me.”

“Yes, I know, she does that. How was it?”


“Is that all?”


“Wet and Nice. That’s what a kiss ought to feel like.”

“Kisses are complicated. For now, let’s just stick to melons.”

“The thing about ice-cream is that first it’s cold, then it’s sweet. If you freeze your mouth you’ll never taste the sweet part.”

“You miss your mom?”

“Everyday. You miss your mom?”

“I don’t remember my mom.”

“Sometimes I think it would be easier not to remember.”

“It was so nice we decided to walk the long way.”

“Sometimes I worry about that boy. It is as if someone or something has made him shut down his feelings so hard that he can’t get in touch with them.”

“Everything is new about you now; your clothes, your hair, your whole life. This is the last thing left. I think it is time to put the last thing away, don’t you?”

“Don’t dwell on the past. Look to the future. The past is behind you, the future ahead of you, a bright, glittering mountain of gold.”

‘What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t want to hurt people anymore.”

“Danny, that’s what you do. You hurt people.”

“Not anymore.”

“The master commands and the dog obeys.”

“Well, Sweety, sometimes being happy is just not enough. Sometimes people have to go and fix the things that made them unhappy before they were happy.”

“I could help him.”

“I know. Sometimes people have to do things themselves.”

“Sometimes in families you need a little tragedy, just to bring everybody back together.”

“Wait son, wait now, before we go running anywhere, let’s stop, take a deep breath, and decide what is going on.”

“This is your refuge? This is your home away from home, your place of awakening? Art, books, music? For what? Did it make you a better person?”

“Look what you’ve made of it. Nice people took you in, they give you everything, and look how you repaid them. You destroyed their lives.”

“You’re a dog. You’re my dog. I fed you, I trained you, I own you. I should kill you, like a responsible owner would do to a dog that causes this much pain, this much suffering. But, the heart…”

“You’ll be safe, back in the world that you understand.”

“I know just how confusing the world can get. We’ll make it simple again. You, me, a cozy little life.”

“You’ll never, ever be anything but a dog. You’ll never escape what you are.”



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Why Geography is Good For You (And Why You Should Take It At School)

Don’t take Geography if you want to know what the capitals of the world’s countries are. Don’t take it if you’re interested in the major imports and exports of Tajikistan. And stay away from Geography if you like knowing the location of major rivers, mountains and deserts. These things are not Geography. They may have been half a century ago. But this is not what Geography is today.

Geography is the biggest, most relevant, most future-focussed and dynamic subject there is. You literally study everything there is on planet earth – both the natural elements and the human. It encompasses elements of Biology, History, Economics, Mathematics and huge chunks of Science. It is also both a practical and a deeply philosophical subject.

Yes, the subject matter is diverse – everything from tropical cyclones to volcanoes, from the dynamics of cities to population pyramids. But there’s also a lot more…

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Naked Monkey Freaky Smart Stuff: Six of the Best and Most Accessible and Most Interesting Podcasts That Are Better Than Idols

It's been four years since I got turned on to podcasts. I listen to new episodes on my commute to and from work, during my admin periods, while I'm blogging and just about whenever I can stitch a few moments together.

It's a little sad how few people I know actually listen to podcasts. How do they survive without regular doses of interestingness from Jad and Robert of RadioLab? How is Stuff You Should Know not as big a part of coffee break discussions as is the latest episode of Idols?

It has been almost two years since I published this list of 6 of the Best Podcasts for Teachers, Autodidacts, Critical Thinkers and Other Interesting Types.

I think perhaps the title scared people off. So maybe I need to make podcasts sound a bit sexier. It's time for an update.

Allow me to present:

Naked Monkey Freaky Smart Stuff: Six of the Best and Most Accessible and Most Interesting Podcasts That Are Better Than Idols

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‘UnEducation': A Creative Path to Better Teaching and Learning

Question: What happens when you ‘un’ something?

Answer: You turn it into its opposite. You flip it. Believable becomes unbelievable, blocked becomes unblocked and afraid becomes unafraid. Uning doesn’t make a thing disappear, it simply inverts it. It is not a negation but a reversal.

Just lately there has also been a lot of ‘uning’ in education – unconferencing and unwebinars come immediately to mind. And there is the parallel trend of ‘flipping’.

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A Controversial Philosophy Assignment for 1st Year University Students (And Other Pretentious Types)


Watch the movie Fight Club* and then answer any of these questions in the form of a discursive essay:

  • To what extent is your identity determined by advertisers?

  • Is schizophrenia the inevitable result of hyper-consumerism? Continue reading

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Not Just a Game: Kids on The Value of Chess in Education


As you no doubt know, constant reader (because I have gone on about it enough), I teach a chess class as an elective part of our Grade 9 curriculum.

This year, as part of their final exam I asked them to list what they learnt in chess. The part of me which writes my more skeptical posts was expecting a trickle of bland answers, but what I got back was truly wonderful, and proof again of the value of including basic chess instruction as a part of the school syllabus.

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The Most Unusual and Necessary Piece of EdTech Advice Nobody Else Will Tell You

So you’re integrating technology into your teaching? Great decision! You’ll find heaps online on how to use technology to enhance teaching and learning. You’ll also find a great deal on how to set up your infrastructure effectively and how to reimagine your daily routines, procedures and pedagogies in order to maximize the benefits of technology in education.

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A Starter Reading List for Smart Young People


Click this link to be taken to the list: Books for Smart Young People

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Guest Post: Collaborative Learning in Chiang Mai (Uwe Muller)

During my recent travels in South East Asia, I was amazed at how many coffee shops there were in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The fact that it is a popular tourist spot surely contributes to the demand, but could not possibly be responsible for so many of these establishments.

Whilst strolling around an area called Nimmanhaemin, I was amazed to see how many students of university and school age were in these coffee shops. On closer investigation Continue reading

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Getting to Know You (Student Questionnaire)

This is what I use to get to know my students at the start of the year. Feel free to modify and use for yours.



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The Real Benefit of iPads in Education: A Catalyst for a Critical Change in Pedagogy

7469170810_deaf87df6f_oDuring 2014, I conducted research at my school to see if the introduction of iPads as a learning technology had any educational merit.

Research Details

I assessed four key skills over eight months as follows:

1) Critical thinking

Students were asked to analyze arguments and their web research capabilities were carefully measured.

2) Creativity

I employed the ‘Multiple Uses’ test as well as a number of divergent thinking puzzles and riddles.

3) Engagement

These were simple survey questions which asked student to reflect on their own engagement in lessons where iPads where used in learning activities.

4) Administrative tasks

Again, these were survey based and questions centered around how well students managed their own learning (from the use of shared calendars to creating and sharing tasks online).

These key learning indicators were defined as follows:

Critical Thinking

Definition: The process of independently analyzing / assessing / evaluating / interrogating information in order to reach a valid decision regarding the truth and reliability of this information.

Characteristics: Critical thinkers are able to think clearly, rationally and without bias. They question assumptions and are able to detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning. They are able to identify relevant and important ideas and to reflect on the justification for beliefs and values.


Definition: Creativity is the ability to generate new ideas, alternatives, solutions and possibilities which have value.

Characteristics: Creative people are innovators, combining ideas and information from disparate fields in novel and useful ways. They question traditional knowledge, they are imaginative and lateral thinkers, and yet they are disciplined in striving to make their creative alternatives useful.

Learning Engagement:

Definition: The level to which students are involved in the learning process.

Characteristics: Engaged students are motivated to work and perform well in the classroom, and have the drive to persist in overcoming any academic challenges and problems they may face. They are interested in learning, attentive and devote their full attention to the learning activities taking place both inside and outside the classroom.

Administrative Competency:

Definition: 'Nitty-gritties' of learning.

Characteristics: Students who have high learning administrative competencies accept the responsibility of remembering due dates, have strong time management skills, are able to plan ahead, always complete homework and projects, set study schedules, and negotiate unreasonable deadlines. They are also able to reflect on their own learning and to diagnose and take measures to remediate problem areas.



Student engagement consistently yielded the highest scores. Administrative learning competencies showed the biggest improvement. But critical and creative thinking abilities declined significantly from the start of the study to its conclusion.

Specifically as regards critical thinking, I noticed that students' ability to identify reliable resources fell markedly, and their ability to analyse / critique arguments suffered severely from students giving what they thought was the expected answer, rather than independently analyzing an argument to arrive at a valid conclusion. Depth of thinking and independent analytical skills showed a worrying decline.

In terms of creativity, the most significant trend was how many students answered that a particular lateral thinking task or problem was ‘impossible’. Additionally, most students seemed hamstrung by overly literal conceptions of the problems for which creative solutions were required. They seemed reluctant to offer divergent / alternative solutions. Scores for originality, flexibility and elaboration all declined from the first benchmarking period to the second. Where ‘creativity’ was shown, it was in the form of nonsense – showing that for some students, ‘creativity’ amounts to ‘anything goes’.


Are iPads to blame for the decline in critical thinking and creativity? Although there is a negative correlation between iPads and critical and creative thinking, my feeling is that the actual cause lies elsewhere, and that this decline happens with or without these devices.

The students surveyed were all in Grade Eight. In South Africa, this phase of a child's education marks the transition from primary school to high school. They were thus surveyed first about two months into their high school career, and then again in about month eight.

What changed to cause such a worrying decline in creative and critical thinking? My feeling (for which I rely solely on anecdotal evidence) is this: teaching happened. Good old-fashioned rigorous teaching. And therein lurks the problem.

I am not Mr Superteacher. I try to incorporate as much twenty-first century learning techniques as I can. I acknowledge that modern teaching needs to be student-centered, discovery- and mastery based and, ultimately, as personalized and progressive as I can make it. Even if I don't always do these things 100% effectively, I do try. I try very hard. But what about a teacher who has always taught to get good results in a test or an exam? These are successful teachers, these are good teachers – and people whose hearts are invariably and undoubtedly in the right place. The problem, though, is that their teaching styles clash with the demands of a twenty-first century approach. Teaching to the test, and teaching to the child simply don't blend.

It must be noted that no serious researcher anywhere believes that the use of iPads in education amounts to some kind of magical technology which transforms education overnight. What they have found is that these devices act as catalysts for transforming education. The results of this study are no different. In using the iPad to teach and learn, a more student-centered, critical approach becomes necessitous as old ‘chalk and talk’ style teaching does not dovetail with these devices. In a sense, the iPad merely provides the impetus for this to happen, and it is for this reason that it is considered a transformative educational apparatus.

The key findings of my iPad in education study show that students' thinking becomes ever narrower and more focused on the right, or typical or even politically correct answer. It also shows that they are less and less able to think divergently and to generate novel answers to problems. This comes about solely because we discourage these tendencies in favor of 'what matters' – viz: standardized tests.

I say this categorically: iPads are not magic. On their own, they do not transform stale and outdated pedagogies. They do, however, vastly improve engagement. Unfortunately, if this enthusiasm for learning is not channeled towards a more student-centered, twenty-first century approach to pedagogy, the adoption of key skills in the learning is seriously jeopardized.

The challenge, then, is to plan teaching as carefully as we do infrastructure and to invest as much in fostering twenty-first century teaching methodologies as we do in hardware. If we do not do these things, we simply end up with devices which are fun to have but not worth very much in the classroom.


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Hey Teacher: Stop Thinking & Do Some Work

(Your results may vary)


I've been thinking quite a lot about thinking of late. Specifically, I've been researching the power of giving students time to think and to reflect – both about the content and skills we teach, as well as the nature and functioning of their own cognitive processes.

The modern teacher always seems to have so much to get through that it isn't always possible to slow down and give kids the time to chew and savor what it is we've served up. But finding the time to allow kids time for quiet, unstructured contemplation (in order to consolidate what they've learned in a deliberate, mindful way) can only lead to a fuller, more personal understanding. And thus improve their performance in the classroom. Moreover, allowing them the time to mull over their own thinking processes gives them the meta-skills required to take on a more efficient, personalized approach to learning.

Taking time to think is important in learning. But not, it seems, in teaching.

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Boys On The Side (Why Schools Are Failing Boys & What To Do About It)

(Originally published: February 2012)
English: The schools in Norrköping were for a ...

Here’s a statistic that shouldn't be: teenage boys are three to four times more likely to take their own lives than girls are. Granted, the research is in its infancy, and most of it is coming out of the United States, but there is something fundamentally wrong here. And it isn't with the research. And it isn't an ‘American problem’ (whatever that is). The problem is this: whatever is causing these young men to decide on suicide, it must – at least in part – be related to their experiences at school. (Since time spent at school amounts to at least a third of their waking hours.)

Boys these days are also more likely to be involved in disciplinary procedures, less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to go on to tertiary education, more likely to be diagnosed with learning problems like ADHD, and more likely to be put on to ‘attention-focusing’ medication. In some of the top schools in the US (ones where entrance exams are required) there is a form of ‘affirmative action’ for boys because not enough of them qualify to get in. Girls pip them by at least 20%. Also in the US, girls are more likely to take Advanced Programmes in every subject – except Physics (Peg Tyre: The Trouble With Boys). And every year, the gap seems to be widening. This is not because boys are ‘slower’, or because they are boys, as boys will be. It is not a ‘quirk’ particular to a gender – one to go along with ‘slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails’. And why do these problems disappear suddenly when these boys become men and enter the ‘real world’? Why does the ‘boy problem’ only really exist while they are at school? Could it be because of school?

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The Kind of Kid I Prefer to Teach

I don't care about how well you do in your tests and exams. I don't care about how much time / money / effort you put into your assignments. I don't care about how well-behaved you are, or how well you work in my class.

These are the traits in a student I prefer:

  • Kids who are quirky are cool. Have weird interests and hobbies. This shows me that you have an unusual mind, that you are comfortable with being different and that you have a character strong enough to resist the conforming influence of peer pressure.

  • If you're kind to other people – even when it's difficult and when they're nasty to you – you're the kind of kid I want to teach.

  • Stand up for the underdogs and I'll stand up for you every time.

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Heal Thyself: What Good Teachers Can Teach Bad Doctors

We only meet them at our weakest moments. We trust them to make the right diagnosis and to help us get healthy again. They are among society’s most venerated figures. It seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that there would be something that a lowly figure like a teacher could teach a medical professional.

But there are substandard doctors out there. And there a few things good teachers do that could help bad doctors to heal their bad habits:

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10 Reasons Why iPads in Schools Are Dangerous


Never has one piece of technology caused such a divide among educationalists. ‘Going’ digital seems to be the new vogue and an unstoppable trend in education these days. To be able to research, create content and manage learning in class seems to signal a revolution in student-centered education. Give a student an iPad and a whole new world of discovery is unlocked. You as the teacher simply stand back and guide the learning journey.

Up to now, no serious research has been undertaken as to the efficacy of iPads and similar technologies in education. Never an organisation to shy away from a controversy, Troll University has recently suggested that tablet devices may in fact be dangerous to a child’s intellectual development. ‘Going Digital: The Dangers of Digital Tablet Devices in High Schools’ sets out the results of a four year study into the effect of iPads in education. To gather their data, researchers led by Professor Richard Roll studied iPad rollout pilot projects in 13 schools in North America, Australasia and Europe. Let Professor Roll say it: “…digital tablets devices have no place in schools – they are detrimental to the cognitve and physical development of teenagers.”

You will find a summarised version of the study results below. Down with iPads in schools I say!

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Traditional Education is Almost as Dangerous as None at All


You tell me education will solve all the nation's problems in one fell swoop. Get kids learning you say. The rest follows.

I tell you: Traditional education is almost as dangerous as none at all.

If you really want to make things better, get rid of the model of standardization and regurgitation. Transform schools into hotbeds of student-centred discovery-based learning, focus on nurturing compassion as well as independent, critical and innovative thinking.

The rest follows.




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