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Start with the WHY December 8, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Teaching Idea.
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In this Ted Talk, Simon Sinek uses what he calls the ‘Golden Circle’ to illustrate how companies often market their products, the majority choosing to describe WHAT it is, HOW it works and WHY you should choose to buy it. The really successful ones however pitch in the opposite direction, explaining WHY first; this encourages you to buy into their core purpose. He argues that this is why Apple for example has become so successful and why their devotees queue up for hours to be the first to own new products. Even those who worship slightly less fervently, having bought one Apple device will go on to buy a second or third. It’s all about creating a cause or set of values around which people can rally; a set of beliefs with which they want to be associated. They don’t just want to use their iPad, they want to be seen to be using it because it says something about who they are and what their beliefs are.

Although it’s a fine line between pursuing an idea with almost religious fervour and becoming a zealot, I wonder if we as teachers can learn from Simon’s contention? As a physicist, it made sense to me to explain WHAT we were going to be doing, HOW we would do that and perhaps almost as an afterthought WHY we were doing that. Isn’t it simply good practice to make lesson objectives visible to our classes at the start of a lesson? David Didau and Phil Beadle argue the cases for and against respectively. I guess I’d aim for the middle ground in that helping students become aware of what they should be aiming for makes sense, but sometimes it’s important to encourage them to explore, to discover, for them to enjoy the ‘Reveal,’ with the objectives perhaps being made concrete at the close.

Learning ‘Objectives are statements that describe what a learner will be able to do as a result of learning.1

An objective statement itself should answer what students will be able to do by the end of the lesson.2

As you begin the lesson, outline the objectives with the students so they clearly know what it is that they are supposed to be able to do as a result of having gone through the lesson.3

And what is common to all these descriptions of lesson objectives. No that’s not a question, but a statement. ‘WHAT’ is common to all of them.

If we take an example – learning about renewable energies. Here’s a typical set of resources. Once upon a time I might have used them as a reference source or for ideas. They identify lesson objectives:
“After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Describe sources and uses of energy.
  • Define renewable and non-renewable energy.
  • …”


Suggested activities include:

  • “Students … build a model anemometer to better understand and measure wind speed.”

The HOW.

But the WHY is noticeably absent; perhaps I too would have been guilty of its omission?

If we follow Simon’s lead the lesson might have started with “Why are they building wind turbines on the nearby farmland and why should we care?” Or maybe there’s an even bigger picture; one where we begin the year/course by explaining the WHY. If we can’t passionately describe WHY our subject is so important and why students should care, how likely are they to buy into the learning which follows? If on the other hand, convinced by our message they become ‘followers,’ their learning is far more likely to be enthusiastically pursued and the learning objectives which follow achieved.

Start with the WHY.


Let’s Git Goin’ November 1, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings, Resources, Teaching Idea.
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cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Irish Typepad: http://flickr.com/photos/irisheyes/8420312876/

I’ve known about GitHub for some while, but little more than it was a place ‘coders’ seemed to use to conduct the black arts.  Then whilst at the 2013 eAssessment Conference in Dundee, I attended a session on interactive fiction as mechanism for assessment. Intrigued, I investigated further and unearthed a bunch of tools to support the writing of interactive fiction. During these explorations however, I also came across a number of blog posts by writers who saw potential in using GitHub for the writing process, especially where that writing might be collaborative in nature. Just try a search for ‘writing using github’ and see what interest there is. One post by Loren extolling the virtues of GitHub, but bemoaning how off-putting it is for non-techies, described a tool she was designing to make the whole process easier – Penflip, a collaborative writing platform. At that point (having wrestled with writing using Choicescript connected with GitHub) I began to sit up and take notice, because we were now into the realm of something manageable by most people. But, to return to the opening line, why the interest in GitHub?

GitHub: The Basics

Together this TechCrunch article and Loren’s post provide a useful summary and overview, but the principle of GitHub hangs on four basic principles:

  • A repository where projects are held. A coder/writer works on their project, saving the various iterations as they go, allowing them at any point to return to a previous version should they have pursued a dead end.
  • Forking or branching which allows another person to break off from the main project and develop a separate branch, building on what has gone before. When satisfied that their new branch has something to offer, they can submit a
  • Pull request. Now the originator of the project can consider this new branch and if s/he feels it adds to the project, they can approve the request which
  • Merges that into the master, thereby improving or extending the original.

Clearly this is incredibly powerful for writing complex computer applications, drawing on the principle of many hands making light work, but also guarding against too many cooks spoiling the broth. The forking allows different people to work on different aspects, or different ways of addressing the same aspect, yet their alterations/additions needn’t contaminate the original until approved and merged. If on the other hand, their fork leads into a completely new area, but away from the original, the open nature of the platform and the principles which underpin it allow them to pursue that new avenue.

GitHub For Teachers

Marc wrote at length about how to use GitHub, particularly within the context of developing resources as a member of a team within school, though with a background in computing, he’s not perhaps the average teacher. As Loren also recognised, the technical jargon which surrounds GitHub presents a considerable barrier to non-techies, which is why she was prompted to develop Penflip. Perhaps then this might offer an easier entry point to teams wishing to collaborate to build resources together. But why stop at individual resources? There are other tools which have recently surfaced like Activate, OpenCurriculum and others which allow teachers to build upon the work peers have already undertaken, enabling resources to be gathered, marshaled, re-purposed, distributed and deployed to students. However these don’t specifically address the development and writing of the schemes of work which provide the structures within which those resources need to be organised.

The next level

You don’t have to have been in school long to hear the phrase “I’d really like to do that, but I just don’t have the time.” Now whilst there’s a whole other discussion to be had around that, perhaps one of the contributory factors is that we rarely work ‘smart.’ The new National Curriculum is almost upon us here in the UK, so once more we rewrite our schemes of work. We do that in response to changes in the curricula that exam boards provide or to address new initiatives that our schools are exploring, but most of all we do it to make the learning we lead our students through more enriching, more effective and more enjoyable. But it’s incredibly time consuming! Time consuming for an individual yes, but collectively across the profession ….!

The question has to be asked why we don’t work in a more unified or concerted way to undertake that development work? I posed a similar question when thinking about the text books which we use to support our students’ studies. Why then shouldn’t we crowd-source curriculum development? And why shouldn’t a GitHub-like tool enable that to happen? I’m not the first to ask the question; Peps McCrea already has, and has even gone a stage further in building OpenPlan, a more friendly and appropriate tool specifically for curriculum planning and to build on the gains that will unquestionably come from teachers planning together, rather than in isolation.

It’s not just about the time-saving and increase in efficiency, but also about the improvements in quality as more minds and experience can be bent to the task. The principle of forking allows you branch off from the main stem and develop the core project to suit your circumstances and students more closely. You’ve saved time in that the foundations were already laid; you just had to tweak things, but in doing that you might also have saved time for someone else down the line with similar needs. Win-win. You might instead have an interest in contributing to the main stem, feel you have ideas to offer, and subsequently offer a pull request for your fork to contribute to the main flow. You made a difference and contributed to your peers’ community and we all know how fulfilling that can be.

I hope OpenPlan gets to fruition and enjoys a wide usership. I’m sure there are technical hurdles yet to overcome, but suspect they will be as nothing in comparison with encouraging people to adopt an entirely new, GitHub-style workflow. It makes perfect sense to me, but as I’m often reminded, I’m not ‘normal.’

The Art of Explanation – Terminal Velocity January 6, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Teaching Idea.
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In the preceding post I discussed the aforementioned book and wondered if there were any lessons to be learned from the messages the author, Lee Lefever, had to offer. Given how successful they clearly are, could the CommonCraft techniques be applied to the way we do things in school? Of necessity having to return to my subject-teaching roots, I elected to choose the topic of terminal velocity – a term (thanks to the film of the same name) with which students are largely familiar, but have less understanding of the concept.

terminal velocity

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by juls10: http://flickr.com/photos/juls10/30719930/

So we have around 3 minutes to follow the general structure mentioned in the previous post. I wanted to solicit agreement using a big-picture statement, set the context by saying why this might be important for them, tell a story which explains how and why a character experiences terminal velocity (and lives to tell the tale!), make connections to other examples with which the audience should be familiar, then conclude with a summary.

Turning that into a CommonCraft-style video would then entail several hours more work to produce the resources, film the sequence, then edit and produce the final movie (something for later perhaps?). However I did go to the trouble of writing the script and recording the narration:

Assuming that I finished off the project and produced a video, does it have a place in a Physics teaching context? Well, yes, no and maybe. It certainly summarises the concept of terminal velocity and with illustrative visuals would hopefully capture the essence in a way all (most?) students could grasp. It assumes a certain level of knowledge – forces, gravity, air resistance, acceleration – this is OK under CommonCraft ‘rules,’ but does require that you are familiar with your audience. I guess the video could be used as a resource to which students could refer back upon competing the topic, or even as an introductory piece – create an almost identical video (not too much overhead) containing an error; students then have to explain which they think is the correct version and why. But we have to be careful not to stray too far from what a Commoncraft-style video actually is; Lee is very clear that they’re about explanation, not description, illustration, definition or elaboration. Maybe the video serves as a touchstone to which students can refer back; a foundation on which they can build further knowledge and understanding.

Producing a Commoncraft-style video then is perhaps more about the process of interrogating your own understanding of the concept you’re trying to explain, so that you re-evaluate the way you usually introduce that learning. I wonder if there’s value in students producing videos – an artifact which would display their true understanding surely, rather than the regurgitated facts examination questions often demand?

And finally something for you to think about:

If a human falls from ten-times their height, they’ll probably be rather unwell. If a spider falls from a hundred-times its height, it’ll walk away unscathed. Why is that?
If you understand terminal velocity, you’ll be able to explain 😉

‘Jockeying’ for position? November 29, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Teaching Idea.
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cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by electricnerve: http://flickr.com/photos/electricnerve/1168546515/

Recently started reading “The World is Open” by Curtis Bonk which promises to stimulate my thought buds in several different ways. Barely through the first chapter (‘To Search and to Scan’) though, he mentioned in passing the notion of a ‘Google Jockey,’ a completely new term to me. A quick search (yes … with Google!) revealed it’s actually quite a well-know idea; Educause defines it as follows:

A Google jockey is a participant in a presentation or class who surfs the Internet for terms, ideas, Web sites, or resources mentioned by the presenter or related to the topic. The jockey’s searches are displayed simultaneously with the presentation, helping to clarify the main topic and extend learning opportunities.

It seems to me there are several advantages to using Google Jockeys in the classroom, but that there are three groups who benefit:

  1. The Jockey – able to practise and hone his/her Web searching skills whilst being able to take an alternative or sideways look at the topic and learning activities in class. They aren’t constrained to focus on the teacher and have the opportunity to follow what piques their interest in the area of study. They bring a new perspective, viewing the topic through their lenses … and perhaps inspiring other students to see things differently too.
  2. The rest of the class – provided with a bunch of supplementary support resources that they might not otherwise have had the chance to experience.
  3. The teacher, who, thanks to the efforts of the Jockey, is blessed with someone finding resources that they might be able to use with subsequent classes working through the same topic.

I guess that some teachers might feel that a parallel information channel could prove distracting; I suspect it would need practice to not only become comfortable with, but to make the most of those serendipitous teaching moments which bubble to the surface as a result of the Jockey’s meanderings. But if having a ‘live’ feed was too intimidating, perhaps devoting the plenary to an exploration of the finds with the while class might be more manageable? It would also be a shame if those finds were lost when the lesson has ended, so perhaps the Jockey could be adding their nuggets to a LiveBinder, ScoopIt or Popplet so that their peers can access them at a later time … perhaps to support their homework?

Now what if the role was actually commonplace in most lessons across the curriculum, or at least where appropriate? Through regular exposure, students would have the chance to sharpen their search skills as they learned from the searching and information mining of their fellow Jockeys. Think also of how much interesting material could accumulate in a relatively short time – clearly an opportunity for learning about managing and cataloguing/tagging information … maybe involve the school librarian if you’re fortunate to have one?

Still only just started thinking about the possibilities; you might already be using them or have a different slant, so please do chip in with a comment. My one reservation is the term, Jockey. Maybe it’s a cultural thing or maybe it needs to be that funky(?!) to be appealing … or maybe it just doesn’t matter. Anyone think of a different expression?

How many learning technologists do you know? December 19, 2010

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Musings, Teaching Idea.
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I’m pleased to say I’ve worked and learned with a number, but first let me set the background. I’ve been working with a couple of colleagues in our English Department recently. Our ICT CPD this year has been focused using the EPICT materials and my colleagues chose to focus on the way they support Y12 and Y13 students as they prepare for the ENGB1 modular exam.


from Twaize on Flickr

Given that revision is often undertaken by students in isolation, they decided that providing the support materials through our learning platform made sense. So they assembled a set of learning activities which would guide the students in how to address the demands of that particular paper, or rather more specifically, Question 1. This question requires the students to analyse six brief texts they have never seen before, drawn from different contexts. Having decided what they wanted to do and how they wanted it done, my colleagues then came to me for advice on how to ‘make it so.’ Here’s their brief:

  1. An introduction in which Q1 is stated with key phrases highlighted and explained in more detail using ‘balloons’ which pop out when hovering over the phrases.
  2. The texts to be provided online so they could be read in turn and also to be ready to hand, whatever task the students were engaged in.
  3. Provide a means for students to choose a term by which the texts could be grouped (e.g. phonology, passive voice etc). To encourage a range of choices across the class, when a student chose a particular term, this was then to be disallowed to the rest of the class.
  4. Provide a way in which each of the texts could be classified as either a good, less good or poor fit with their chosen term. This should be an interactive, graphical tool, similar to an interactive whiteboard.
  5. Allow the students to write a paragraph each, justifying and discussing the grouping they chose. At this point they should also be able to refer to the mark scheme for clarification of the points they needed to home in on. In addition, students should also be able to comment on the choices and justifications of their peers.

If anyone wants to know how each of these requests was met, I’ve posted more details here, though I’m particularly pleased with finding DabbleBoard to address item 4 … but that’s not really the point of this post.

Perhaps this is a prime example of how things should be working in the rapidly developing, fast-paced world of educational technologies. Two teachers had done the crucial part of the process; they had planned a sequence of learning activities for their students which addressed a particular need. They could envision the ways in which they wanted the activities to take place, but though they weren’t in a position to deliver that themselves, that didn’t matter. They simply used a colleague better placed to address those needs. In other words maybe we shouldn’t be expecting all teachers to develop their skills to the level where they could realise all their ideas; instead we need to provide them with access to someone with a skill set who can. Vast sums have been invested developing our ICT infrastructure in schools. We’ve also spent (wasted?) a fortune helping teachers develop their use of ICT and whilst an enthusiastic, dedicated few at the bleeding edge will spend huge amounts of their own time exploring and pushing the boundaries, the majority will struggle to keep abreast. Time then to take a leaf from Higher Ed.’s books and consider using the principle of Learning Technologists? Granted in these days of diminishing budgets, funding that position may need some creativity, but what are the alternatives? Either we expect teachers to keep up to date with and explore the possibilities that emerging technologies might offer – not realistic for the majority, or the full potential of the technology remains largely unexploited. Economists say that a recession is precisely the time to invest; could that be true for educationalists too?