Henry and Nick Go To Cape Town: A Story About Learning

Henry and Nick are going to Cape Town. Henry is Nick’s dad. Henry tells Nick about the trip two weeks before, and then hands Nick his iPad and asks him to research places he would like to go. Nick is eight years old.

Nick discovers Robben Island and tells Henry he would like to go there. And then Nick finds out all about the history of Robben Island. Inside a week, he’s an expert on the prison and the famous prisoners on Robben Island.

Henry decides to fuel Nick’s interest in History, and takes him to the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg. This is the museum that is next to an amusement park. Nick glances over at the rollercoasters and rides on their way into the museum, but he doesn’t break his stride as they walk towards the ticket office.

Many hours later, Nick now knows the names and faces of most of the politicians, activists and key figures of the Apartheid era.

When they come back from Cape Town, they’re planning on visiting Vilakazi Street in Soweto next. Nick is already finding out more about Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Nick is eight years old.


Mrs Browne

Let’s call her Mrs Browne. You probably know her. There’s one in practically every school.

Mrs Browne’s been teaching for thirty years. She knows what she’s doing.

Mrs Browne’s classes get fantastic results in tests and exams. Her students run to get to her classes. None of them ever dare to bunk her lessons.

Her classroom is her castle. Her desk and her prep tables and her kettle and her clutter take up a third of the classroom space. And of course the students’ desks are placed in tight, straight rows.

Mrs Browne arranges her students according to their results in the last test they wrote. (Her students write a test a week.) The ‘dummies’ (mostly boys) sit in the front so that they can focus better. The smarties sit at the back.

Mrs Browne loves the smarties. She’s not so keen on the dummies. Some kids are just not cut out for her subject, she tells anyone who will listen. Someone once told her that this was tantamount to child abuse. She laughed.

Fear is a great motivator, according to Mrs Browne. If kids are scared of her, she gets more out of them. They’re afraid of being late, of not doing their homework and of asking questions in class. (Why would they need to ask questions? – She’s taught the work hasn’t she?)

Every day, her students have plenty of homework to do. Mrs Browne’s believes in ‘rigor’. Uniforms have to be neat and tidy because that shows respect.

Students are required to leave bags outside so that they don’t get in her way as she patrols. And the air is always a little too cold in her class.

Mrs Browne calls her students names and demeans them because she thinks it’s funny.

At professional development sessions, Mrs Browne is a tyrant. She sees no reason why kids need to be taught to think, much less how to think about their thinking.

And don’t even get her started about this newfangled technology stuff. Brain-based learning and collaborative structures? Not for Mrs Browne thank you. It isn’t relevant to her subject.

Decades’ worth of young minds have endured Mrs Browne’s class. But most of them have made it through school anyway, and have made a go of life – despite the psychological scars she left in them.

Fortunately, she will be retiring soon, and education can move forward.


(With apologies for the thinly disguised rant. Hopefully, you, dear reader, will read this as it was intended: a metaphor for outdated modes of teaching – rather than an attack on any real person.)


The Big, Fat Reason Why Edtech Enhances Learning. (And How to Really Make Technology in Learning Pop.)

There are probably a dozen or more reasons people give for integrating technology into education. Among them:

  • Facilitating personalization and differentiation of instruction and assessment.
  • Content creation is prioritized over content consumption. (And hence, student agency in their own learning enhanced.)
  • Democratizing access to information. (Once students have been shown how to evaluate this information.)
  • A greater focus on the application and amplification of skills through methodologies such as flipped teaching.
  • Edtech fosters greater engagement as students enjoy using technology.
  • By learning to use key tools, students are better prepared for the world of work.
  • Teachers can make more effective use of diagnostic and formative assessments in order to monitor learning.
  • E-learning, vodcasts, MOOCs and blended methodologies extend the reach of education by allowing students to work online.
  • Because learning is now more multi-modal and interactive (and thus more brain-friendly), learning becomes more effective.
  • Students present their findings more often and thus become better communicators.

And so on.

There’s truth to all of these. But like fable of the blind men describing an elephant, all of these reasons are not really the big, fat reason why technology is important. They are merely facets of the primary reason.

So what is it that makes technology integration truly pop? It’s this:

Edtech encourages and enhances structured and collaborative learning methodologies.

Or, put another way:

Edtech makes it possible to transition from teacher-led instruction to structured student led and peer-based learning.

These structured cooperative peer-learning routines are not ‘group work’. Nor are they stifling scaffolds for thinking. They are structured and intentional, but they are also malleable. The learning routines and structures as promulgated by the likes of ‘Visible Thinking Routines’ (by Harvard’s Project Zero) and Kagans’ ‘Cooperative Learning Structures’ work absolute wonders in class.

And technology has the potential to take these pedagogies to an entirely new level.

Properly structured learning, when paired with the appropriate educational technologies, has the potential to include all of the items on the list above… and then some. Edtech enhances the process by providing tools to record thoughts and discussions, to enhance evidence-based reasoning, to differentiate learning, to stimulate reflection, to create content, and to enhance feedback.


Some Examples:


This routine asks students to begin by thinking their way through a problem, idea or issue. Next, they pair up and discuss their thoughts with a partner. Finally, they can discuss and share these thoughts either with a bigger group or with the class.

Now imagine this process infused with technology.

  • Using Google Docs and/ or Google Slides, students can record their conversations collaboratively and modify them at every step.
  • Using an app like Explain Everything, students can record the entire process of their thinking and how it develops as they move through the process.
  • Students can engage with other ‘squares’ in other classrooms around the world.
  • Using backchannels, students can tweet their individual or group ideas.


This routine is pretty easy to understand. Now add a layer of technology:

  • Students can use a device camera to record things they see, teachers can use an AR app like Aurasma to make a quest of finding the stimuli. Or how about student using ThingLink to create hotspots on an image?
  • Kids’ thinking can be enhanced by allowing them to research supporting evidence for their own or other perspectives.
  • Wondering can be refined by allowing students to draw or mindmap their ideas digitally, or indeed to present them in creative ways.

A Few More Examples:

One Stray (Can also be 2 Stray or 3 Stray)

Students work on a task as a group of four. At different times throughout the task, the teacher calls out “one stray” (or “two stray” or “three stray”). When this happens, one or more students stray to other groups to collect other ideas and bring them back to their group.

  • Use Google Slides / Docs (HyperDocs) and Book Creator


Students record the following: Three things that are clearer to them regarding the day’s topic or concept; two connections they have made to the new concept and their prior knowledge or experience; and one question/ concept/ problem that needs further clarification. The teacher collects the slips as students leave the room and uses the information to inform the next day’s lesson.

  • Use Google Forms to collate and analyze these reflections and to inform the next lesson.


The teacher places students into groups of 4. Each one is assigned a different task or section. Students doing the same section from different groups then move together and work cooperatively to become experts in that specific field. Experts then return to their base groups & share what they have learned.

  • Apps to support a Jigsaws: Google Docs, Google Slides, movie making apps, podcasting apps, Book Creator, slow motion / stop motion apps.

Claim-Support- Question

Identifying generalizations & theories, reasoning with evidence, making counter-arguments

  • Try Popplet and / or Notability

Question Starts

Use these question prompts to start or conclude a section:

Why / Why is ____ ? How would it be different if ____ ?

Suppose that ____ ? What if ____ ?

What if we knew ___ ? What is the purpose of ___ ?

What would change if ____?

  • Enhance Question Starts with any audio, video or text-based app!
  • sometimes it’s nice to allow students to scribble and doodle. Use Notability or Paper53 for this.

CSI: Colour, Symbol, Image

Capturing the ‘heart’ of an idea or concept through metaphors and visual connections.

  • Use any of the awesome Adobe Apps / Canva / Grafio 3 Lite / Padlet

3-2-1 Bridge

Students document their initial responses to the topic: 3 Thoughts/Ideas – 2 Questions – 1 Analogy

After the learning activity, students document their new responses to the topics: 3 Thoughts/Ideas – 2 Questions – 1 Analogy

  • Google Docs & Forms

And this is honestly the tip of the tusk of a very big elephant. There are so many really effective structures, and pairing them with technology turns an already amazing learning experience into something majestic. The trick is firstly to pair the structure carefully with the lesson objectives, and then find the appropriate technology. Fair warning though: Some structures, like the silent collaborative mind-map are actually better without the technology.

I’d love to have your thoughts on this post!



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All Homework is Not Equal: Why We Need to Rethink the Value of Homework in Middle School & High School


We need to redefine homework in order to make it more effective for middle and high school students. By substituting homework as punishment, practice*, revision or preparation with homework that focuses on integration, creativity, thinking, collaboration and extension, homework can become a more meaningful, ongoing, and effective learning experience for senior school students.


The Detail:


I am with Alfie Kohn and the other homework denialists. I did, after all write a post titled ‘Homework is a Slimy, Smelly, Nasty Troll That Eats the Souls of Children’.

But since then, I have refined my thinking slightly. And I only agree with the anti-homeworkists IF you define homework as unguided, repetitive ‘practice’. And IF we are only talking about younger children.

In senior schools, most homework amounts to ‘practice’. But we now know that practice does NOT make perfect. (To use Kohn’s example, imagine a tennis player practicing without a coach. Almost no development will take place – without proper expert guidance, goal setting, correction, challenging, and fine-tuning.) Practice needs to be deliberate, well designed, and guided to be effective. And most homework is not.

But here’s the thing:

Not all homework is created equal. There are actually several species of homework. Some have absolutely no effect on meaningful learning, but some actually do.

If our focus is on life-long learning, and we do want to ensure that real, progressive learning takes place beyond the confines of the middle and high school classrooms, then there are some types of homework we should weed out, and some we should nurture.

(A note on nomenclature: It’s an interesting thing when a new compound word emerges. Words like cellphone and website which were originally two words slowly become one as they become more sanctioned and established. Homework is no different. In many countries, work done at home was frowned upon, but as the world has become more competitive, homework as a noun rather than a descriptive adjective became an accepted and established term. In what follows, I have taken the liberty of creating a series of compound words as alternatives to talking about homework in the hopes that they will become equally as established in as short a time as possible.)



To start with, here are the weeds:



Unfortunately this does happen in schools. Obviously, no learning will ever happen with this kind of homework. I am by no means a behavioral expert, but I do believe it must be a bad idea to punish kids with school work.


It happens. In fact, it’s often unavoidable. More often than not, what results is something wilted, rushed and done for the sake of doing it. Inevitable, yes. Good for learning, no.


This fits into the ‘If I give them more to do, I will seem like a good teacher’ category of pedagogics. It needs to be rooted out and burnt.

Practicework / Revisionwork (Or Practisework if you must)

Although it seems like a beautiful idea on the surface, this type of homework is mostly poisonous. Sure, kids need to revise and practice to learn, but they need to do so in the right ways. Practice and revision can be made far more effective by grafting them to one of the flowering species listed below.


Again, in general, this is a great idea, but in practice, it seldom promotes any kind of real learning.





Getting kids to work together on tasks promotes deeper learning. Combine this approach with one or two others below to form a beautiful bouquet. Collaborationwork could be done digitally, or as part of a supervised after school programme. Or, indeed, in class. (Homework in class he says! ’Yes’, he replies.)


This species of homework asks students to take what was in learnt in class further and deeper. It could be in the form of a rich discussion with family, as well as extra research or thinking (see below).


Why not ask kids to think about some interesting, rich questions or problems? They could record these thoughts in a learning diary. But it would also be great to get them to generate a list of their own deeper questions about the work convered in class. Thinkingwork works superbly well in tandem with collaboration work.


Creativework asks children to generate their own ideas, solutions and innovative products. Pair with collaborationwork.


Ask students to bring several of the things they’ve learnt over the last few weeks together by trying to find links, connections and commonalities between them. Works well when combined with creativework.

Imagine teachers and students speaking a new language of homework. Where the teacher assigns integrationwork and students ask if they can make it collaborationwork or creativework. I do think there will be a great deal more excitement around ongoing learning, and I also believe that it will be far easier to engender the habit of lifelong learning in our young people.

* Because so many of my wonderful readers are American, and because I honestly believe they have it right where spelling is concerned, I will use ‘practice’ with a ‘c’ as the verb. (American pragmatism for the win!)


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Interactive Fiction: The Coolest Way to Teach Critical Thinking, Decision Making, Ethics, Social Skills, Consequential Thinking, & Engaged Literacy

Holiday time and I'm catching up on those downloaded apps I haven't really had time to play with yet. And then I come across the interactive fiction folder I created in January. In particular, an 'app-story' called MetaHuman caught my eye. Many hours later, I had played through it a few times, with different story paths and endings each time. But what I liked most was how my character's abilities, relationships, and characteristics changed with each different combination of choices.

The best interactive fiction apps are those which are like regular choose-your-own-adventure books – but with an added series of graphs showing the consequences of your choices on things like friendships, personality, and your moral stance on issues. The main character is usually customizable, and the best interactive fiction also leaves room for solving mysteries by entering solutions to problems. And, like all good fiction, they raise some interesting philosophical and ethical issues to ponder. (MetaHuman raises issues around magic versus science, human body augmentation, and profit versus people.)


Naturally, my teacher brain turned immediately to the possible benefits of these types of interactive stories in education. Although these are not as visually immersive as games, they are engaging in their own way. My feeling is that, under the right kind of guidance from the teacher, interactive fiction could be used to develop a variety of progressive skills. Reading, discussing and reflecting on these stories, whether individually, in pairs or in small groups, has to be a very cool way to develop children's consequential thinking abilities, ethical and social understanding, critical thinking acumen, and problem-solving/ decision-making skills.


Choice of Games is my favorite developer of these interactive text-based games and they have a ton of app-stories available for download. Some stories are more suitable for younger children, and others for younger teens. Most of them are paid apps or have in-app purchases, so please read the reviews beforehand. They are even willing to pay for contributions.

Update: You'll find even more interactive fiction under the 'Hosted Games LLC' developer heading. Most of these as well as the Choice of Games titles are also available on Steam as well as the Google Play store.



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Innovation Apologies: Newness is Messy


From a few of my more popular posts you may have surmised that I am some kind of innovation guru. Or that I have successfully walked the path and can now look back, stroke my beard, and tell you how I did it.

The truth is I can’t. Because I haven’t. Because that isn’t how innovation works. I haven’t ‘done’ innovation, I am doing it. Innovation is an active process. And it’s on-going. I am lucky enough to be a sweat-encrusted, grimy, blue-collar innovator, and I work as part of a team. No single innovative idea that I have ever put in place has been as a result of me working alone.

Worse, I have made mistakes – and continue to make mistakes. Our entire team has. Getting it wrong is as important as getting it right. Newness is messy.

If you were to come and look at where I work, I would struggle to show you the great new things we are doing. Because we’re still getting there. And the biggest revolution so far has been in the hearts and minds of my colleagues. Yes, you will see and hear about great things now and in the near future, but if you only see and hear those things, you will miss 90% of what we have done are doing.

The truth is, I am lucky enough to be knee and elbow deep in trying to make new and better things happen on a daily basis. But I am not alone. Innovation is a collaboration. And it is also part of a bigger collective dream of a better way of doing things.

But if you do want some advice, this is all I have to offer. Please take it with a heap of salt:

1. Innovation needs a blueprint to pull the entire team together. This plan needs to be one that is collectively created, evidence based and focused on innovation towards a specific goal: a better way of doing things. All sub-aspects of any new initiative must be informed by this over-arching blueprint.

2. Innovation is hard work. Slapping down a few gimmicky pieces of technology, a shiny new prospectus, a glitzy website, or some nice branding doesn’t do the job. You need to wrestle with ideas and better ways of doing things (as well as old habits, and embedded assumptions – the things many will call ‘traditions’).

3. Innovation for one is not innovation for all. Getting one person to change one thing they do is often enough of a victory to boost the entire project. Set manageable goals, but also make them just challenging enough. Pushing too hard too soon, and setting goals that are too lofty, is like trying to build a skyscraper overnight. Somewhere, something is going to collapse – and take the rest of the project with it. (What this also means is that goals need to be customized to each person’s strengths – while still taking them just far enough outside of their safe zones.)

4. Sustainable innovation is never the result of a ‘thought leader’ (whatever that is). It’s the result of a team of committed and hard-working people. And if you don’t have those people yet, give the ones you have the skills and inspiration they need. (So easy to say, isn’t it?!)

5. Communication between all members of an organisation building something new is essential. Keep everyone in the loop, be gracious and be respectful. Moreover, give everyone a voice. The most amazing ideas are unearthed if you stop and listen to the quiet guy working the shovel. However, to be perfectly frank, some voices will need to be edited out of the conversation. The easiest way to spot who to not to listen to, is to identify the person who tries to sabotage key aspects of the project. There is a difference between pointing out some possible pitfalls in an honest, constructive, and open way, and trying to topple things over.

6. It’s good to plan and to put structures in place. But if you spend all of your time planning for every eventuality, you’ll never get a thing done. Things will go wrong, and when they do, adapt the plan or adapt the implementation.

7. Look at the evidence. Ideas are wonderful, and yes, be creative. But what does the latest reputable research say? Do these ideas have real world merit?

8. Acknowledge your mistakes. No, embrace them. Squeeze them dry in an attempt to learn from them. And if you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not really innovating. There will be set-backs and constraints. Work around them. It’s easy to give up. It isn’t as easy to make a plan to carry on. And the best innovations often happen as a result of constraints.

9. Good things take time. Take the long view.

10. Never stop imagining what could be. If you think you’re finished transforming, you’re not thinking hard enough. Network and create opportunities to keep on learning, to keep on building and to keep improving.


Innovation is disconcerting and it’s audacious and it’s exciting. And it is hard work.

And that’s it.

Now jump.


Social Media Explained (A Quick and Nasty Guide)

So I've seen this thing a few times. (I'm not really sure where it comes from, and a reverse Google image search didn't help much. If it's yours, give me a shout and I'll update this.)

I thought I'd try my version of it for people who want a quick(ish) and nasty guide to social media.


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This is Jamie

This is Jamie

Jamie is a boy. He's a boy boy. He's 14 and getting a bit gangly after a recent growth spurt. He's energetic, he's rambunctious, he's a bit naughty, and he battles to sit still. Jamie has spirit. But Jamie also irritates some of his teachers, and he gets into a bit of trouble with them quite often. He doesn't always pay attention like he should, and of course he doesn't 'achieve to his ability'.

Jamie loves playing sport – mostly because he gets to get rid of a bit bit of energy. He loves football and swimming. Jamie also loves playing Minecraft on his computer, and he likes dubstep music. Jamie reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy novels.

Jamie loves to ask questions and to find out new stuff. He's interested in space and cars and animals. His hero is Elon Musk. Jamie's best friend is Scotty – whose real name is Benjamin, but who is called Scotty because his parents moved here from Scotland a few years ago.

Unfortunately, after a few too many letters from his teachers complaining about how Jamie is 'disruptive' and 'lacking in focus' and 'difficult to teach' and 'capable of better marks', Jamie's parents have decided to intervene. They have taken away his computer privileges, banned him from seeing Benjamin, pulled him from sport, and told him that he will only get to play again once he has learned to be more serious about his studies. They've told him he needs to sit still in class and be more compliant.

Now it's like a light has gone out in Jamie's eyes. He's become a little robot. Jamie isn't Jamie anymore. He isn't curious, he doesn't smile.

But he is doing much better at school. And his teachers all comment on how much easier he is to teach now.



(Please note that Jamie is an amalgam of many students – boys and girls- whom I and others have taught over many years at many different schools. You probably have your own Jamie. The point of this post is to try and encourage well-meaning parents and teachers to think differently about 'disruptive' and 'underachieving' students.)


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Questions for John Hattie About Visible Learning and What Works in Education

Image Source: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/99/310322761_dc4572e7f6.jpg

Dear Professor Hattie (Or Other Visible Learning Expert)

Let me make this clear at the outset: I think many of the ideas and findings in Visible Learning are useful and encouraging. I am a little concerned, though, about a few things. Especially since I am suspicious about the unencumbered zeal with which school administrators and many teachers are treating your findings. (I am always suspicious of any kind of unencumbered zeal.)

Please help me out with the following questions. (And please excuse me if the answers I need are readily available – I can't seem to find much online: most of what I have found is either about your results or in the form of a critique of your statistical methods.)

  1. How do the studies you include in your meta-study define the terms 'learning' and 'teaching' exactly? (Is 'learning' defined as the ability to access facts and 'teaching' as the art of transferring those facts? Or could they be something else? Do all of the studies define teaching and learning in the same way? If not, do you think it's fair to group them together? For example, if teaching is defined as preparing students to be creative problem-solvers, and it is found that class size does not play a role in this kind of teaching and learning, are the results lumped together with studies which base learning on the results of a standardized test?)
  2. Were all of the studies you included in your meta-study of the same quality? (That is, were they all subject to similar levels of rigorous peer review?) Also, am I correct that some of the studies you included date back to the 1980s? And if so, do you give these as much credence as more recent research?
  3. What was the variation in sample size, and did you weigh each of these equally? (That is, was a study using only 50 students given the same weighting as those involving 500 or more?)
  4. Am I correct that your meta-study melds together findings regarding learners from ages four to twenty (kindergarten to college age) as one single group? (Do you see any problems with this approach?)
  5. Have you looked at all at how some factors influence other factors – either to bring about an enhanced combined effect or to cancel one another out?


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The Four Best Mobile Device Management ‘Apps’ to Keep Students On-Task and Safe in a 1:1 Learning Environment


I'll start with the spoiler: There are no recommended apps here.

Why not? Well, simply because I believe that as important as it is to keep kids safe in a 1:1 environment, to keep them from seeing unsuitable content, to keep them on-task, and to keep them from being exploited, using a piece of software to do all of this is far from ideal. In fact, I believe we lose the ability to teach some extremely valuable and enduring lessons by outsourcing digital citizenship.

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On Taking the Time to Sharpen Your Axe




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What is Creativity in Education Really All About?

So we all want to become more creative teachers. But what does creativity in education really mean? Is it about making worksheets look prettier? Is it about teachers standing on tables and being more exuberant? Is it about loosening things up and rethinking organizational structures and curricula? Or is it about finding and using more unusual ideas in the classroom?


Creativity in education is none of these things.


Creativity in education is primarily about our students. It's about finding ways to allow them to infuse their own interests, strengths and passions into the learning process, and it's about encouraging them to generate new, interesting and useful ideas. It's about igniting curiosity and wonder. And most of all, it's about making learning relevant, fun, challenging and customized.

And creative teachers? Creative teachers develop personalized learning challenges for their students and then stand back, offering only a gentle nudge here and there. Creative teachers reimagine the syllabus in a one-size-doesn't-fit-all manner. Creative teachers turn lessons into experiences. Creative teachers allow their students to become their focus, and they make it their business to ensure that each and every single one of their students has as many opportunities as possible to find and walk the path in life that they most want to.





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8 Ways to Help Your Kids to Become Better Critical Thinkers (A Guide for Parents)


The ability to think clearly, logically and independently are key skills in the modern world. Not only will young people need to think critically in order to sparkle in the workplace, but they will also need to do so in order to avoid being sucked into the gurgling cesspool of misinformation, manipulation, magical thinking, and chicanery which characterizes our age.

First a definition of critical thinking:

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Computer Literacy Quiz for Teachers


Are you computer literate and ready for the digital revolution?

Take this quiz to find out:

(To open in a separate window, click here)


Lite Beer: Google Classroom Revisited

Dorian Love has another look at Google Classroom:

I have previously declared myself an avid Moodler, and this has not changed. However, most of the teachers in my school have swung over to Google Classroom, many from Edmodo, and so I have decided …

Source: Lite Beer: Google Classroom Revisited


10 Words Teachers Use That Make Me Grumpy

Let's jump right in…


There's nothing wrong with helping kids to develop a sense of determination and resilience. Too often though, the word 'grit' becomes a form of victim blaming, with schools (and society) defending their outdated (and often cruel) systems by saying that the victims of these just need to toughen up and be more flexible. Instead, we should be fostering in our kids a sense of compassion, and the courage to stand up against cruelty, intolerance, hardship and abuse, rather than being 'resilient' towards these things.

Here's an excellent read on the limits of teaching grit: The Problem With Teaching Grit.



The word 'rigor' is the last defence of the traditionalist and the teacher who has not read an academic article on education in the last two decades. It usually follows a phrase like: “Yes, this is all wonderful, but what about…” And while this may sound like a plausible point, what it actually means to people who use the term is that they see no merit in teaching hands-on learning, problem-solving, communication skills, as well as independent and innovative thinking, because these things have no bearing on high stakes assessments. Leaving aside the fact that this is an incredibly myopic perspective on the ultimate aim of education, the fact is, teaching critical thinking, creativity, collaborative and communication skills has a more positive impact on grades than the old 'rigorous' methodologies.



Often used as a synonym for 'rigor', or as a strengthening adjective for it, the word 'academic' is often used to try and lift dry, abstract, content-based learning to a place where it is venerated and above critique. It also implies that students need to be lead through the complexities of the academic with the careful guidance of an 'expert'. The truth is that much of what is lauded as 'academic' is anything but. I by far prefer the implications of the root of the word, which is from Plato's academy – a 'school' which preferences one-on-one dialogues, independent learning and critical analysis. More on why I loathe the word 'academic' can be found here: A Very Academic Problem.



Mindfulness means to be fully aware of the present moment. The term comes from Buddhism, and it has some rather nice, fluffy benefits, most of which have to do with not worrying about the past and the future, by only focusing on the now. Of late, there is an increasing move towards transplanting mindfulness into classrooms, where it is supposed to increase attention spans and eliminate a host of negative behaviors. Leaving aside the fact that we may be tainting our kids' critical thinking abilities by tacitly supporting idiotic practices like transcendental mediation, my problems with 'mindfulness' are twofold:

  • Firstly, it's all fine and well encouraging focus and eliminating stress, if we don't also prescribe homework, make use of high stakes tests or over-assess. All this does is to postpone the stress until after class, and make it someone else's problem.
  • Secondly, Hakuna Matata mindfulness encourages both a lack of planning as well as a lack of reflection. It means “no worries, for the rest of your days”, or, in the present vernacular, YOLO! And that's just irresponsible and stupid. Young people need to be taught responsibility, how to stand up to injustice (including those injustices endemic to the schooling system), and to have the courage to change the world. They also need to be encouraged to grow and improve themselves. And the only way to do this is to think beyond the now. Like King Simba eventually did.



I've written a post on why I despise tradition. Here is an excerpt:

Traditions are simply archaic rules that you want to entrench by calling them traditions. Tradition means doing what you’ve always done and obscuring the real reasons you’re doing it. You don’t question a tradition. Traditions are inculcated by schools simply because they make students easier to control. Students can never criticize any of these traditions because they’re traditions. They’re trapped in a circular argument designed to be self-reinforcing.

It is no coincidence that most traditions are about archaic rules. Tradition means you are able to enforce uniform regulations strictly and that you worry more about the length of a student’s hair and what’s stuck on their faces and in their ears than you do about what’s in their heads. Tradition means war cries and tribalism. It means group-think and conformity, and students become so brainwashed by a school’s traditions that they begin enforcing it themselves.

It’s classic social engineering.


Grades / Marks / Standardized Assessments

I hate 'em. I do. Even though I can't really think of a viable alternative. Reducing a child's learning journey to a number or a letter symbol borders on abuse, and it is the main motivating factor behind standardized, norm-referenced assessments, as well as our dangerous stigmatization of failure. But what do we do instead? There has to be a different way. More here.



If we build a culture of fear around failure, then not only do our students fail twice when they do fail, but we fail as teachers.


Discipline / Respect

Respect is a two-way process. You shouldn't expect it. You should earn it. If we want kids to question and to stand up for themselves and to be more independent, then how can we tell them they have to respect us simply because of our age and positions?

Most discipline problems result from boredom, stress, alienation and family issues. And from teachers failing to see kids as individuals. Seen this way, the best way to overcome disciplinary issues is through openness, compassion and empathy. It also means that we as teachers need to have a serious rethink about how we do things. But detentions, demerits and other punitive actions are just so much easier.



Creativity in education is supposed to be about encouraging students to think divergently, to find innovative solutions and to uncover their own unique passions. All of which is absolutely amazing and truly revolutionary. Unfortunately, like much of what is translated into classrooms from other spheres (see philosophy, critical thinking and problem-solving), creativity has become semantically bleached. Far from revolutionizing pedagogy, in practice, 'creativity' in most classrooms involves having students create a presentation, or teachers applying a thin veneer of prettiness to class notes, or asking kids to solve problems – to which there is only really one or two set answers. And of course, many think that 'creativity in education' is about how a teacher presents a lesson, where it is really about making a meaningful shift to student-driven learning. Almost anything is seen as creativity in classrooms these days, except that so little of it really is.



The thing with policies is that they are seldom written down anywhere. As such, 'policy' is most often actually just thinly disguised groupthink, and usually means either “we've always done it this way”, or “it's just easier this way”. Except the word sounds more formal, official – and above critique. A policy is supposed to be something to which the majority agree, except that in schools it is most often used to protect outmoded practices. The best way to get around a 'policy' is to ask to see it on paper. And if it isn't written down, and it isn't agreed to by the majority, then it can be questioned, even if the “policy” comes from the highest authority.




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A Better Way to Sell Reading to Teenagers

Instead of telling teens that reading is important because it will make them smarter and improve their grades, why not tap into their inherent desire to be independent, different and rebellious?

If a teen asks why reading is important, tell them this:


Reading is the best way to escape and be on your own – even when you're surrounded by people. It's also a perfectly legal way to hallucinate different worlds and different lives. Reading is an act of rebellion: you can think thoughts that no-one has taught you to think. And if you think about a good book deeply enough, it can give you superpowers that not many other people have.


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Why It’s Time to Stop Being Prissy About American English

So this thing's doing the rounds again:

When I was at school in Johannesburg, I was penalized for writing words like penalized with a 'z' (pronounced 'zed' – not 'zee'). Color was colour, favorite was favourite and even a cookie was a biscuit. I was indoctrinated into using 'the Queen's English' and, for the few years I taught the language, did my small part in brainwashing kids into using the 'right' version of the language. I was even moderately haughty because my English was better than the majority of what I was reading and hearing on television and in movies.

Then I began writing this blog. And I realized that the majority of my readers were American. My crisis of conscience came early, mercifully, and I knew I had to rethink my bias towards British English. Why on Earth would I insist on using a version of the language which would alienate 70% of my audience? So I dropped the British in favor of the American. Which, in turn, lead me towards becoming quite vocal about using American English in the various schools at which I have taught. But I haven't really sublimated my vocal protestations into writing until now.

So here it is: My 7 reasons why it's time to stop being prissy about American English

  • By far the majority of fiction and non-fiction, whether it is online, in print or in visual media come out of the good old US of A. Shouldn't those who make the most use of the language get to determine how the language is used? (And if your answer to this question is a stubborn 'no', then you are, I feel, denying the entire history of the language. English has always been malleable – shaped by those who use it. Just look at Shakespeare: take out all of the misspellings and neologisms, and you'll have nothing special left.) Think about it this way: The word 'nice' is used as a compliment these days, we don't hold on to its original meaning (describing someone who is silly, foolish or simple). And a similar semantic shift has happened with so many of the words we use. English is a democratic language: the majority decides. Eventually. That said, why should we standardize either way? The differences are so minor, and we all understand what is meant anyway, is there really any reason why we can't weave our own dialects into the version of English we want to use? Granted, business and legal documents would need some kind of standardization, but both of those are their own dialects anyway.
  • Building on the previous point: If teachers are going to insist on British English, despite the prolific output of books, movies, web content and television series in the American version, then they should not be prescribing American fiction or using American movies for visual literacy. What a silly thing to do: Prescribing Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby or Shawshank Redemption or Dead Poet's Society, and then penalizing kids for picking up the language these masterpieces use. Kids pick up a language in context, yet so many of us insist on telling them that most of what they read, view and hear is wrong.
  • The majority of examination boards in the former colonies and the current Commonwealth who do insist on British English no longer penalize kids for using the American version (or, as I do, skipping schizophrenically between them). Yet, in the lower grades, teachers remain remarkably prissy about not using American spelling or 'Americanizations'.
  • Every English speaking country has shaped the spoken language to its own customs and quirks. Aussie English is a very different beast to Scottish English in the spoken vernacular, and the English South Africans speak is very different to the Irish. And we are very open to this. In fact, we enjoy the diversity of English dialects. Yet when we write, we insist on trying to be model British citizens? Is this so that we can be globally understood? If this is the case, American English should be (and is) the ligua anglica of the globalized world. This is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth.
  • Holding on to the traditional use of something is actually a little bit nonsensical: Functional fixedness is a form of cognitive bias that “limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used”. This mental block may well limit creativity, innovation and the evolution of the language. (Again, think of Shakespeare.) Perhaps controversially, I would even contend that a large measure of the enormous American creative output is exactly because they have been able to create their own brand of English, and that they see the language as malleable instead of inflexible.
  • The point of learning a language is to make yourself understood, and to understand others. In writing, spelling is indeed important, simply because you are not taken seriously if your writing is riddled with errors. But American English spelling is just easier, and young people, as well as second language speakers are far less likely to get stuck on the arcane quirks of British English spelling than they are on American spelling. The result is that communication in American English is easier and less intimidating.
  • And American grammar is so much easier and drastically less confusing. Take formal and notional concord. In British English, you can say either “Which team are winning?” or “Which team is winning?” – depending on whether the collective is/ are considered a team or a group of individuals. In American English, it is always “Which team is winning?”

Source: Wikipedia


American English is not the poor cousin of British English. It isn't a mistake. To imply that it is, is to ignore the prolific literature and other works coming out of the USA. Language is for communicating effectively, and it should not be made more difficult than it needs to be. American English is simpler and easier to use, but it that doesn't make it less effective. Moreover, for countries like South Africa, who are still mired in British English, it smacks of elitism and a strange alliegance to a former colonial master. I say ignore the snobs and speak and write the English you're most comfortable with, and don't look down your nose at those who use the language differently to you. It only makes you look uncool.

And yes, I know my writing still holds on to many British conventions (like my preference for using adverbs like 'differently' instead of the more American 'different'). I take my language the way I take my tea: the way I want it. English is my language as much as it is the Queen's. Deal with it.

More recently, during a debate in the House of Lords in 1978 one of the members said: “If there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is.” (We should perhaps bear in mind that the House of Lords is a largely powerless, nonelective institution. It is an arresting fact of British political life that a Briton can enjoy a national platform and exalted status because he is the residue of an illicit coupling 300 years before between a monarch and an orange seller.)”

― Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way


I look forward to your comments.


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5 Surprising Advantages of Marking Longer Answers Using Google Forms & Sheets (Guest Post By Michael Caplan)

This post by my colleague Mike Caplan is re-blogged from the original on my dynamic new school’s blog. I think he is onto something really interesting…

5 Advantages of Marking Longer Answers Using Google Forms and Sheets (By Michael Caplan, History & English)


Many tech-savvy teachers may be aware of the super cool self-marking that Google Forms in combination with Flubaroo brings. However this works mainly with short answers, multiple choice matching columns, true and false etc. Nevertheless, Forms (in combination with Sheets) can also be used for longer answers. I had a go at this and after several uses have found some distinct advantages, some of which were quite surprising:

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13 Alternative iPad Presentation Apps (That Aren’t Keynote, PowerPoint or Prezi)

Don't get me wrong, I do love Keynote. I was one of those who actually paid for it way back when I got one of those original iPads. And then Prezi came along and blew our minds. And finally, Microsoft (finally) gave us a pretty darn good version of PowerPoint – which I also use – often, and shamelessly. They're really great apps, all three of them.

But there are a few other really good presentation apps out there which you can use to build engaging content.

(Note: There are one or two other apps that do what these do, but I am not recommending them because I find them either too unreliable or difficult to use.)

In no particular order:


Google Slides

Why? Because it's collaborative. Slides should actually be classified with Keynote, PowerPoint and Prezi, but it isn't generally used by as many people, in my limited experience. And it should be.

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