Designing a positive learning environment

The role of teachers is changing. With the access to information available to students online, our primary role is no longer a content delivery system. Rather, we are now tasked with cultivating literacies associated with “whole-child” development. In addition to the traditional emphasis on cognitive development, we now support students to develop affective traits such as “grit”  and “mindfulness.” On paper, the task is clear. However, there are very few teachers with a background in child psychology, or who are well-versed in theories of human development. Adding to these challenges are the processes of Globalisation which have resulted in classrooms with vastly different beliefs, experiences, and interests. Creating a classroom climate that values this diversity is a challenge, though not one that a bit of creativity can not overcome.

Differentiated instruction is essential. In practice, this can mean arranging your classroom in a way that allows for both collaborative discussions and individual projects. It also means designing tasks that allow meaningful access to students with a range of strengths and interests. Designing assessments in a “one size fits all” format is easier for the teacher, but it fails to recognise that each student is unique. A third form of differentiation which is not discussed as much is the differentiated use of technology. Yesterday I assigned an Infographic to my grade 9 students. On the task description I asked them to use the application ‘Piktochart’ as I’m familiar with it and can therefore offer support for students who need it. Several students asked if they could use alternative applications, such as Canva. My first reaction was negative…”why not just use Piktochart? I’ve shared a youtube tutorial blah blah blah..” There was no sound reason for this response. Students were ultimately given their choice in applications as they should have been given from the start. Student choice is essential for a classroom climate that respects all students.

In addition to differentiated instruction, assessment, and technology, it is important for students to be exposed to acts of tolerance and intolerance, to be able to recognise them when they happen. My Grade 10 students are currently engaged in a unit on Genocide. The focus has been on understanding Genocide as a process that begins with an “us and them” worldview, and then advances to acts of discrimination. Grade 9 is doing a comparative study of the Jim Crow South and Apartheid South Africa. Again the emphasis is on identifying prejudice as it appears on a daily basis, the imperceptible and thus most dangerous forms of prejudice. The director of the Hong Kong Holocaust Tolerance centre has generously offered time and resources to co-teach the unit on Genocide. Last week someone who had lived in South Africa as Apartheid was being dismantled joined our class to share his experiences. Both of these guests impress upon the students that these horrific events are not sealed away in some distant, uncivilised past, but are rather possibilities for any age that lacks the courage to stop it.

The inquiry statement for the unit on Apartheid is “overcoming systems of oppression requires activist inspired change.” This is another important aspect of cultivating tolerance. Students need to feel empowered to make meaningful change. However it is hard for them to identify with Ghandi or Rosa Parks. It is important to highlight courageous acts that students engage on a daily basis



Mobile Technology and Learning

As part of a course I’m currently taking through Teach-Now, we are required to make a case for the use of mobile technology in the classroom. We need to answer the question:

Why should a teacher be prepared to allow or require students to use mobile devices to achieve learning objectives?

The potential for mobile technology to disrupt the learning constraints imposed by 19th century architectural designs excites me. It’s increasingly clear, however, that a primary reason the billions of dollars pumped into technology initiatives is not having the desired effects on learning is because the efforts are not based on sound pedagogical principles. To design effective lessons that involve mobile technologies, we should therefore begin with principles proven to enhance learning, with or without the support of technology. Below are four such principles:

  1. Knowing what students know: All learners have unique beliefs, interests, and understandings, which need to be accessed and built upon
  2. Active learning: Dewey’s idea that deeper learning results from active participation in the learning process still holds after 100 years
  3. Multiple ways to participate: Tasks should be designed with the inclusion of a range of strengths and challenges in mind. All students deserve a chance to participate in a meaningful way
  4. Reflection: To consolidate learning it’s necessary to push the pause button, to think about what has been learned, how it was learned, why it’s being learned, and strategies for future improvement  (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999)

With these principles in mind, the following mobile activities could provide teachers with engaging strategies to meet their learning objectives.

  1. QR Code Gallery Walk. This is an idea I am currently experimenting with in my grade eight Humanities class. The first step was to create a video lecture that covered the content I wanted students to understand. In this instance, it was the different patterns of development in Mexico and the US from the time of European arrival. Using a “flipped classroom” approach, the students watched a 12 minute video lecture, with key vocabulary and themes highlighted throughout.  I created nine QR codes based on the video lecture. Each code was a “big idea,” for instance the ‘Encomienda System’ or ‘Virginia General Assembly.’ Each QR code linked students to a page that described one term in more detail. As part of the homework assignment, students were asked to bring their phones to class, with a QR scanner downloaded. The nine QR codes were placed in different sections of the room. In groups of 2-3, the students would then go to each code, scan it, and discuss their findings. For each term they discovered through the QR code, they had to say how it was linked to the developmental disparities between the US and Mexico, and if it contributed to, or impeded, economic growth.

One thing I’m sure we can all agree on is that most kids enjoy using their phones. This activity therefore connects with the first learning principle identified above, understanding and connecting activities to students’ interests. It also allowed for multiple ways of participation. Each group allowed for several roles. There was the “scanner,” the “researcher,” and the “presenter.” This allowed for each student, including those often excluded due to EAL challenges, to participate in a meaningful way.

2. Taking photos and assigning hashtags to cultural artefacts on a school field trip. Recently I did a unit with grade eight on Cultural Preservation. One of the essential understandings was to identify the differences between tangible and intangible culture, and be able to formulate an opinion on which one is more worth saving. As part of this unit, we visited the Hong Kong History Museum, which has a multi level exhibit on the ‘Story of HK,’ told through cultural artefacts. In the past, after we have seen the exhibit, I take the kids to a local cafe where we sit in groups and co-create a presentation based on our new understandings. This time, I decided to leverage the educational potential of mobile technology. All students were required to photograph examples of both tangible and intangible artefacts. They had to apply the appropriate hashtag, i.e., #tangible or #intangible, and share it on a social media platform, with a class hashtag designed for purpose. A follow-up activity required students to write a reflection on the value of tangible and intangible artefacts, based on their photographs.

Like the first task, taking photos on mobile phones is something that connects to the students’ interests. By having students take photographs and hastag the results, it also introduced a more active element to museum visits, rather than passively observing objects. The follow-up activity allowed students a chance to reflect on what they had learned. Next time, we will co-create a presentation using our photographs, organised according to “tangible” and “intangible” and collectively attempts to reach a consensus on which one is more vital to preserve.



Bransford, J. D., Brown, A.L., Cocking, R.R. (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.