Towards an inclusive classroom

I recently completed a unit with Grade 9 Humanities on the European Union. To assess what student already knew about the topic, we completed the following pre-assessment using Google Forms on day one of the unit:

EU pre-assessment

The challenge for me, and I assume many teachers struggle with the same challenge, is how to follow up on the feedback provided by these pre-assessments. One area I’m working on is how to differentiate in a way that does not stigmatise students as ‘special,’ or even the more innocuous labels like ‘less-advanced.’ A label is a label, and it doesn’t feel good to have one with negative connotations attached to you. The following chart illustrates my attempt at overcoming this challenge.

The following class the room was arranged according to three stations, identified as “interested,” “activist,” and “policy wonk.” It was explained that each station addressed a different approach to learning about the EU. “Interested” was for students who had not learned much about the EU before but were interested in finding our more. Wearing headphones, they watched a five-minute introduction video. After the video we discussed as a group some of the main ideas, while they all took notes.

The second station was for the “activist,” or the student with some knowledge of the EU, but in need of organising this knowledge into something a bit more systematic. Students at this stations were given the option of the using the online collaborative application Popplet to create a mindmap, or to draw one the old-fashioned way on paper that was provided. The “policy wonk” station was for the student that had studied the EU before, or had learned about it on their own. The policy wonks were tasked with identifying three key issues facing the EU today, and creating a Google Slide presentation to share these issues with other students.

To assess the students development across the unit, a discussion forum was created using Google Classroom. Each week we discussed a specific challenge facing the EU. Students were assigned roles, such as the researcher–tasked with provided resources; the instigator–tasked with igniting dialogue; the inquisitor–tasked with asking questions; and the responder–tasked with answering question. Each of these responsibilities required different levels of skills and knowledge, and tapped into different areas of student interests. While effective differentiation is a work in progress, the station idea holds a lot of promise:

3-tiered strategy

High-Stakes Assessment


Since No Child Left Behind became federal law in the US, states have been required to test every child in every year from grade 3 through 8. The US is not alone in this high-stakes strategy. PISA test results have secured East Asia’s reputation is an educational juggernaut, while the rising suicide rate amongst teens has been a tragic consequence of the proliferation of high-stakes testing in India. In what follows I’ll briefly compare a school that does not engage in high-stakes testing, with one that does, with a focus on the uses and implications for students and teachers.

Since its founding in 2004, a secondary school located in northeastern China, and part of the IBO community, has not required students in grades 6 – 10 to take part in high-stakes testing. Instead, student progress has been determined by regularly structured formative and summative assessments throughout the school year. In addition, interim reports that indicate a students’ social and emotional progress are issued once per academic term. Failure, in the sense of repeating a grade, is not an option. The implications of this approach are mixed across the spectrum of stake-holders. Most students like the fact that an exam will not determine if they continue on to the next grade. Teachers like the flexibility of not “teaching to the test,” but  rather tailoring instruction to meet the needs of a diverse student body. This results in a curriculum that is not typically, or exclusively content-driven. It also has resulted in a curriculum that sometimes uses standards to guide instructional decisions, but in no case do standards drive the learning process. While most parents appreciate a learning environment that validates the experience of childhood, there are some that would like to know where their child stands in relation to other students within the school, and across the globe. Next year they will find out.

Next year all grade 10 students will take part in an ‘e-Assessment’ designed to evaluate their learning across all subjects in comparison with grade 10 students across the globe. The exam is externally moderated by the IBO. In preparation for these changes, several innovations are currently  being introduced. Most significant are changes to the curriculum. All teachers from grades 6-10 were required to take the ‘e-Assessment.’ They did this in groups, while taking note of the content and skills required to succeed. These notes will be compiled into a grade 10 learning outcome document. The curriculum for grades 6-10 will then be “backward mapped” to align with these grade 10 objectives. To ensure coherency of the skills progression, the Common Core standards will be used by all teachers to formulate learning objectives for each year, across all subjects. Teachers have already voiced concerns about “teaching to the test.” Based on the current changes, this seems to be an accurate assessment.

The important question is are the changes currently being introduced by the school a step in the right direction? To my mind, and this applies to high-stakes assessment more generally understood, a lot depends on the nature of the assessment. From what I gather, the e-Assessment targets skills over content, with an emphasis on problem-solving and real-world scenarios. If so, perhaps teaching towards these objectives is not such a bad thing. Moreover, in the case of the specific school being discussed, perhaps the introduction of skills and content standards will provide students and parents with clear expectations, which has been shown to improve learning. At the same time there is a philosophical problem with the use of a high-stakes assessment in a context that promotes process and multiple means to express understanding. The e-Assessment is a one-shot, one-size-fits-all model of evaluation. Perhaps one solution to this conundrum could be the use of portfolio assessments, as these would demonstrate the attainment of specific objectives, while also validating the process involved.

Planning Assessments

I recently launched a unit on the European Union for a grade 9 Individuals and Societies class, as it lends itself nicely to inter-disciplinary themes, including Politics, Economics, and Geography. (There are interesting links to History and Psychology as well, though these are not the focus of the unit I’ve designed). One of the two standards being pursued–adopted from the Common Core Plus— is that students will be able to analyse how cooperation and conflict influences political, economic, and social contexts. Having broken down the standard into its component parts, the first strand we will focus on is: analyse how conflict influences economic contexts. To satisfy this objective, students need to be able to identify forms of conflict, and features associated with an “economic context.” The following formative assessments were designed to ensure students meet this objective:

  1. Students complete a K-W-L chart to assess their prior knowledge of conflict as it relates to the European conflict. 

This formative assessment was designed based on the understanding that learning is a constructive process, that new information is built upon, and filtered through the sediments of a students’ prior beliefs and understandings. A K-W-L chart is one way to access this prior knowledge.

2. Students will identify three statistics and two examples to support the claim that  “refugees are influencing the economic context amongst Shengen countries in Europe.” 

A paragraph on the economics of Shengen will be provided to students from this article by the European Council on Foreign Relations. I am currently in active dialogue with the English teacher to develop the academic writing skills of grade 9. By exercising their ability to identify evidence and examples, they will be better prepared to use evidence and examples when they write their own essays.

3. Students will storyboard the links between the Syrian Civil War and the economic context among Shengen countries. 

I find storyboards to be an inclusive and effective way to support causal explanation development in students. Using images and text to illustrate the relationship between the Syrian Civil War and Shengen economics will allow EAL learners to access the learning experiences, while providing sufficient challenges for native English speakers.


Understanding and Applying Standards


In 2016-2017 my school will be adopting a single-set of standards for all subject areas. To prepare myself for this innovation, I’ve been getting familiar with the Common Core Plus (Common Core for US based overseas schools). Throughout this process I’ve learned quite a bit about unpacking standards, backwards mapping, and writing objectives.

Previously, I would include several standards in my unit plans with the intention of addressing them all. For instance, I may have four or five standards, each with the complexity of the following:

1.12.d  Analyze the impact of  revolution on politics, economies,  and societies. 

Now, after fully engaging with the “unpacking” process, I realise this method was neither smart nor attainable. To fully satisfy the standard listed above, a student would have to deeply understand how revolutions impact a) politics b) economies, and c) societies. They would need to know what revolutions were, and be able to distinguish between a political, economic, and social impact. This one strand could require 4-6 weeks of study. I have therefore become far more parsimonious in my selection of standards for each unit plan.

As for “backwards mapping, ” I think we all have been told, and see the importance in beginning with the end in mind. However it is only recently, with the more rigorous application of standards, that I have approached this in a more systematic way. For this, the UBD framework has been fantastic. To simplify the process, I have been thinking more in terms of what students will Know (facts), what they will Understand (transfer), and what they will Be able to do (skills and advanced mental operations). I now think more critically about what sort of operations a students brain will be able to do at the end of the unit, that it perhaps could not do previously. I’m also more cognisant of the scaffolding of skills necessary for the student to demonstrate the new understandings. While backwards mapping requires more time and care than traditional approaches to unit planning, the clarity it brings results in better teaching, and students who are more engaged, as they know what is expected from them. Effectively designed formative assessments are critical in making sure the students know how far along they are towards meeting the expectations.

The third area that has been getting more critical attention from me lately is objectives. In some sense, I feel that a thorough unpacking of standards goes a long way in defining the objectives for a teacher. For example, unpacking the standard mentioned above (1.12.d  Analyze the impact of  revolution on politics, economies,  and societies. ), it’s clear that individual lessons would need to be devoted to ensuring that students:

Know: what a revolution involves, and could identify specific examples. Students would also need to know how to distinguish between politics, economics, and societies, while also being able to see the overlaps between these three categories.

Understand: that revolutions are a destabilising force that can topple governments, lead to economic depressions, and create social divisions.

Be able to: recognise and account for continuities and changes in systems of governance, economics, and societies, as a result of revolutions; and be able to demonstrate this understanding orally, visually, and in writing.

One note of caution on the use of strict objectives. Often teachers like to post these objectives on the white board, in the belief that it provides students and teachers with clear expectations for the lesson. This is likely true. At the same time, by saying effectively “You will be learning this!,” it sends a strong message that students are at the mercy of the teachers interests and beliefs. It is important to allow space for the co construction of learning goals.

Thank you for reading!

Standards and Backwards Mapping

It is increasingly understood that interdisciplinary learning enhances deeper learning. As part of my personal learning goals, I’m therefore trying to create units that meaningfully integrate multiple subject areas. Recently I launched a unit ambitiously titled: European Union, as it seemed an ideal and relevant theme for integrating aspects of History, Economics, Politics, and Geography. To avoid the risk of having too much breadth, while overlooking depth, I’m intending to anchor the unit with specific learning objectives. Below you will find the core standard we will be pursuing across the unit, ideas for assessing the attainment of the standard, and learning experiences to enable access to the standard.

Context: An international secondary school in Hong Kong. Grade 9 students. The subject is Individuals and Societies.

Unit title: European Union

Stage 1: What is the desired result? At the end of this unit, students will be able to   Analyze how cooperation and conflict influence political, economic, and social conditions. (Common Core Plus, History Standard for Grade 9, 2.12g).

This particular standard was selected as it anchored the huge topic ‘European Union’ into manageable and significant themes such as ‘cooperation,’ and ‘conflict,’ while embedding these themes into economic, political, and social contexts. Moreover, as the targeted students are in grade 9, analytical skills are increasingly critical to academic success.

The following factual, conceptual, and debatable questions will drive the inquiry:

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 6.33.46 pm

Using the KUD framework for unpacking standards, by the end of this unit, students will: Know four forms of political and economic cooperation amongst European states, and two sources of conflict. Understand how conflict influences the political context of various member states. Be able to reach evidence based conclusions on variations in economic development amongst three EU member states.

Stage 2: Assessment Evidence. How will I know students are attaining the desired result? 

  1. Using a Google Forms Quiz to check fact-based understanding of the four systems of cooperation amongst European states.
  2. Comparative line graph analysis of variations in economic development amongst three member states of the EU.
  3. A debate on the topic: Should the U.K. exit the EU on June 23rd? Students will be divided into four different interests groups, each representing a different perspective on “Brexit,” both pros and cons.

Stage 3: Learning experiences

What learning experiences will enable the students to meet the desired result? 

  1. Students complete a K-W-L chart to assess prior knowledge and learning goals for the unit
  2. Complete a jig-saw activity, in which four groups of students are assigned to research and present to classmates on one of the four forms of cooperation in the European countries.
  3. Create a Popplet concept map for identifying what is meant by “economic conditions,” “political conditions,” and “social conditions.”
  4. Using the Twitter hashtag #globalinteractions, students will retweet articles posted by @ Europe Union, which discuss how cooperation or conflict has influenced economic, political, and social conditions. They will individually discuss the selected article and justify their categorisation.


Applying Classroom Rules and Procedures

There are very effective teachers who adhere to a set of rules, often posted on their classroom walls, and reward and punish their students accordingly. From what I understand, the key to this effectiveness is trust, which is built up through consistent and unbiased application of rewards and punishments to all students.

I am not one of these teachers. There are no rules on the walls of my classroom. At the same time, I have not sent a student out of class or to the Principal’s office for disrupting lessons in over four years. I like to think this is because the learning environment I design gives all students a voice / agency, and kids are free to move, provided it does not disrupt the lesson. When there are rules that limit student agency and freedom of movement, a revolution on some scale is inevitable.

That said, there may come a time when my students might not come from stable and supportive families, which results in a strong self-esteem, ambitious goals, and thus a motivation to learn.  What would I do in such a situation?

According to some academics, the rewards and punishments alluded to earlier, consistently applied or not, is not the way to go (Good & Brophy, 2003). If students are rewarded for doing what they already do naturally, the argument goes, then what had been intrinsically motivated behaviour becomes extrinsic. Yet, what happens to the behaviour if the rewards stop being distributed? (Imagine a circus full of animals that were not rewarded for doing tricks. There would be no tricks, and it would be a chaotic and scary place, I imagine). While I tend to agree with this stance, effectively a critique of behaviourism, there are others who argue for a more balanced approach. Marzano (2007) provides two staged responses to disruptive behaviour, one based on adherence to rules and procedures, the other acknowledging a lack of adherence to rules and procedures.

For students who adhere to the rules of the classroom, Marzano suggests the following sequence of acknowledgement from the teacher:

  1. Verbal and non-verbal recognition of the student’s adherence to the rules
  2. Tangible recognition of the adherence to rules— this traditionally took the form of points. However, in the eight years since the publication of Marzano’s book, badges have become much more popular.
  3. Involve the home in the recognition of student’s good behaviour. For instance, a phone call or an email to let the parent’s know their child has been doing great. (I’ve been doing the email thing lately. It takes very little time and the parents are always delighted to know their child is behaving excellently).

For student’s that do not adhere to rules, Marzano also provides recommendations. Below is an adaptation of Marzano’s suggestions, which aligns well with measures I’ve taken in the past that have proven effective:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 12.09.11 pm

The first, ‘Be with it,’ or ‘withitness,’ involves a full spectrum awareness of the classroom and a proactive stance. In response to how his students should take on multiple attackers, a martial arts instructor once famously said: “Surround them!” The idea of one person surrounding five is paradoxical, but I think it gets to the core of ‘withitness.’ As teachers, we need to be everywhere, with eyes in the back of our heads, which allows for a proactive rather than reactive stance. Next, I like to give potentially disruptive students the option of the “stage.” I will call on them to answer a question we are discussing, or to share their insights on an issue. Often disruptive behaviour is due to inactivity and an enforced, unnatural silence. If a student expects to be put on stage to share knowledge, they are more likely to listen while others are speaking. If this doesn’t deter the disruptive behaviour, it may be a good time to remind the class–not explicitly focusing on the disruptive student, though making it known to them in more subtle ways that the message is intended for them–that they have high academic aspirations. To impede these ambitions by disrupting the journey is therefore selfish and generally uncool. It’s the sort of behaviour one would expect from much younger students, etc.. This sort of language has a way of a) making the class less tolerant of the disruptions, and b) putting the disruptive behaviour in a new frame, characterised by immaturity and desperation. If none of the above work, then it may be time for a student to step outside the class for a few minutes. If this option is taken, I think it’s important to escort the student out, let them know why this option was taken, and have them reflect on why they felt the need to act this way, why they were unable to control their impulses, why the need for attention was so strong that they were willing to disrupt a lesson.

It’s critical to remember that no matter how annoyed we might feel, these are kids, and there may well be very sad stories driving the attention seeking behaviour.



Good, T. L., & Brophy, J. E. (2003). Looking in classrooms (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Marzano, R.J. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching. Alexandria, VA: ACSD.





Creating High Performance Learning Environments

The importance of setting high expectations for all students is a critical, and under-discussed aspect of high performance learning. In addition to setting high expectations, teachers need to be equipped with specific strategies to bring these high expectations to life for all students. Below, three videos have been selected, each showing a different strategy for creating a high performance classroom.

The first video is an excellent resource for STEM teachers looking for a creative way to teach physics. Using foam and marbles and other friction generating materials, the teacher engages students in the creation of “roller coasters” to learn key concepts of physics. The first thing that struck me about this task is that it looked fun, and it is clear that the students are enjoying the experience. At the same time, there is deep learning going on, as evidenced by the level of discussion the students are having, and the questions they are asking. Key to deeper learning is reflection, which the teacher cultivates through the “chime” strategy. Teams of students share their frustrations and struggles with completing the roller coaster, while other students “chime” in, first recognising the challenges shared by the first speaker, and then sharing the struggles they have also faced. Such a strategy not only reinforces deeper learning through reflection on the process of learning, it cultivates an atmosphere of empathy, as students are acknowledging each others struggles and triumphs.

The second video comes from a third grade Chinese language class. The teacher uses a call and response method, infused with a bit of humour and clapping, To judge from the level of proficiency of these youngsters, her strategy is highly effective. What struck me about the video is that it appears most, if not all, students are engaged and performing at a high standard. It makes me wonder what sort of norms are in place that can foster such an inclusive environment for learning. In the third video, based on the ‘Whole Brain’ approach to teaching, the teacher utilises movement and repetition to teach students Geography concepts. While this approach contrasts starkly with my own style and personality, I am intrigued by the strategy of having students embody concepts, such as longitude and latitude. What is also clear in the Chinese and Geography lessons, is that all students are focused on the task at hand. The strategies thus serve a behavioural as well as an instructional purpose.

Setting high performance expectations for my students

As alluded to previously, certain strategies seem to be personality dependent. While I respect the Chinese and Geography teacher for fostering an atmosphere of inclusivity and high performance, I relate much more to the “roller coaster” task, as it seems to me more student-centred, unpredictable, and fun. This may also have to do with the fact that, while I teach students ages 12 to 18, the classes are small, and the students are generally motivated to learn. Classroom management does not need to be a dominant feature of my lesson planning, or rather I pre-empt behavioural disruptions by consciously designing a classroom environment in which students move around, discuss ideas with each other, and use technology in creative ways. I am also a proponent of open-ended, inquiry approaches to learning, and the subject I teach–Humanities– lends itself perfectly to such an approach. If I were a language teacher, perhaps the call and response method used by the Chinese teacher would seem more attractive.

In sum, strategies to foster high performance classrooms are often dependent on the learning objectives, and the strengths and challenges of the specific students we teach. At the same time, common denominators for high performance learning environments do exist, and these videos suggest some of the features– keep learning active, driven by high level questions, with embedded reflection, don’t shy away from repetition if the learning objectives demand it, and engage the body as well as the mind.