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.

Learning Theories for the Twenty First Century: Metacognition

From the article: Pintrich, P., R., (2002). The role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessing. Theory into Practice. 41(4). pp. 219-225

Bloom’s taxonomy for learning included factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge categories. In the revised edition (Krathwohl, 2002), metacognition is introduced. Three types of metacognitive knowledge were identified. First is strategic knowledge, which consists of general strategies for learning, thinking, and problem-solving. Strategic metacognition is applicable across multiple domains and tasks. Strategic knowledge can be organised according to rehearsal, elaboration, and organisational, and includes such actions as repeating words to memorise, summarising texts, and creating a mind-map to organise thoughts. A learner needs to know when and why to deploy these strategies, which involves the second aspect of metacognition–knowledge of cognition. This aspect also includes awareness of the environmental norms, for example the unique requirements of a specific teacher for a specific type of task. The third aspect is self-knowledge, which includes knowledge of ones strengths and weaknesses. One feature of experts is that they know what they do not know.

One implication for assessment would be a project aimed at combining the highest outcome for cognitive and affective knowledge. A developed personal learning portfolio would seem to require both creativity and metacognition.

Learning Theories for the Twenty First Century: The Science of Learning

Based on the article: ‘Learning Sciences,’ by Nathan, J.M, and Alibali, M.W. (2010).

The Science of Learning (LS) is said to contain aspects of modernism and postmodernism, constructivism, distributed cognition, and sociocultural theories of learning. The authors recognise this tension in LS as “essential to the nature of LS scholarship.” The primary concern of LS is to bridge the gap between theory and practice. It does this by a pragmatic, design based approach, in which effectiveness rather than theoretical intuitions guide the process. Different theories are useful at different times in an intervention if the goal is systemic improvement. LS is also motivated by the limitations of theories of learning to offer specific methods of instruction. The LS framework for instruction includes the following core components:

1. Students arrive in a classroom with existing knowledge and beliefs that need to be accessed, and perhaps altered.

2. Students need to play an active role in the learning process, what is known as a ‘learner-centred classroom.’

3. Metacognitive reflection on the process and product of learning are essential for students to become independent learners.

Another key feature of LS is that learners are viewed as part of a complex environment, consisting of peers and teachers, but they are also in constant interaction with physical, cultural, semiotic, and technical tools. Learning needs to be understood as emerging from this complex interaction, which impacts significantly on instructional design.

Towards a social understanding of self-regulated learning.

Educational policy research in the last decade has placed increasing stress on the need for students to develop skills or competencies to compete in the knowledge-based economy, where production involves conceptual innovation, rather than routine manufacturing. The ‘Next Chapter’ of the IBO, a comprehensive alteration in the practice, if not the principles of the IBO framework, reflects the influence of these policy findings. Approaches to Learning (ATL), designed to help students “learn how to learn” (MYP: From Principles to Practice, p. 20), is now a core component of the curriculum. The ultimate aim of making these ATL an explicit part of the curriculum is to develop “self-regulated–independent and autonomous” learners (Ibid., p. 21).

In what follows I hope to expand on the definition suggested by the term “self-regulated” learning (SRL), and the “self-management” ATL that is meant to support its development. By placing the development of (SRL) in a social context, teachers can remain consistent in their constructivist approaches to instruction, and use collaboration as a scaffold to help the “self” better regulate its learning. First a bit on the relationship between (SRL) and metacognition.

What is the relationship between metacognition and self-regulated learning?

(SRL) has been defined as the control, management, monitoring, reflecting, and adapting one’s cognitive processes and learning activities for improvement. Examples of (SRL) occur when learners monitor and direct their own progress, asking questions such as “What am I doing now?,” “Is it getting me anywhere?,” “What else could I be doing instead?”

These definitions depend on the learner being aware of themselves as a learner, with the ability to notice strategies as they occur, to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, to reflect on and ultimately to adapt these strategies for future improvement. To monitor, control, regulate, reflect on, and adapt one’s learning, it is first necessary to be aware of learning as learning, an awareness of learning above the subject matter itself. A learner needs to have a metacognitive awareness of their own learning, before the self-regulatory processes mentioned above can be initiated. In How People Learn (click link for full text. It’s a synthesis of decades of educational research published by the the National Research Council in 2000) metacognition was identified as a key element for improving student learning.

The upshot for teachers, particularly those involved in implementing the ATL of the Next Chapter, is that it might be helpful to develop the metacognitive awareness of your students, before focusing on developing strategies for improving these processes. I found some great thinking routines for developing metacognitive awareness in Making Thinking Visible, though I’m sure there are plenty of other excellent sources available.

 Is it really up to the learner to “self” regulate?

Since the 1970’s when the notions of metacognition and (SRL) first gained prominence, (SRL) has been conceived as an individual, cognitive process. Our language continues to reflect the belief in an isolated ego, manipulating their thinking in a context-less void. We speak of “self-management,”and “self-directed” learners.  With the constructivist turn in educational theory initiated by Vygotsky, research into the processes of (SRL) are identifying the social factors supporting, and often driving the (SRL) process. These changes are also reflected in the language now used to describe the processes. There is talk now of ‘co-regulated’ learning (see the research being done by Allison Hadwin), socially-shared cognition, and distributed cognition (for more on this see ‘Cognition in the Wild‘.

As teachers, when we encourage our students to aim higher, ask for clarification of meaning, recommend apps for managing information, we co- regulate with our students. More significant and often overlooked in the literature is the co-regulating role played by peers during collaborative projects. I have experimented with different forms of social media to make the process of collaboration visible to my students. This enables me to identify effective collaboration, rather than vaguely defined “group work.” I could see students motivating their peers– ”maybe consider this..” “ I know it’s hard, maybe try reading this…”, “ …summative is in three days, we can do this!!”  Conversation threads also reveal students asking each other for clarification of meaning– “ what do you mean by ‘better’…  “can you explain this more, I don’t understand..” In other words, the affective and organisational traits we often associate with “self” management and “self” regulation occur within and are fostered by interactions, resulting in meaningful collaboration.

(I also show these conversations to students, so they can see and understand what co-regulation is, to see what it means to be a team-player, a collaborator in the deeper sense of the term.)

If there’s a “take-away” to speak of here, it’s to see metacognition, self-regulated learning, and collaboration as related and mutually reinforcing, and leveraging the power of ICT can support the development of all three by making the process visible to the teacher and student.

Thanks for reading…



21st C. learning: Defining, implementing, assessing

If you’ve attended a PD workshop within the last five years, you may have heard how ” we are educating children for jobs that do not yet exist, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet. ” This is one of many messages from the viral video Did You Know?, meant to shake educators from our perceived dogmatic and regressive slumber. In the last five years, reports issued by Institutes such as ISTE, UNESCO, OECD, ATC21s,  and EnGauge, have responded to these challenges by placing ’21st Century Skills’ at the core of significant policy changes. These macro-level shifts are reflected in the recent ‘Next Chapter’ changes  of the International Baccalaureate and the ‘Common Core’  standards recently introduced in the U.S.

For educators, these are exciting times, as we are situated in the midst of a paradigm shift, which affords both opportunity and risk. Adjustment, it seems to me, needs to begin with a clear and shared understanding of the key terms involved in ’21st century learning.’ We need to also recognise potential challenges to implementation, to avoid the cynicism that often arrives in the wake of failed initiatives. We also need to develop a framework for formatively assessing these skills, a framework that enables teachers to provide specific feedback to students for developing these skills, but that also enhances student agency by allowing for self and peer-based assessment. Or so it seems to me. Below is a brief sketch highlighting the ambiguous state of ’21st century education,’ and current efforts to address these concerns.

A 2012 study comparing international frameworks for 21st century learning (Voogt, J. and Roblin, N.P., 2012), suggests the skills required for success in our era are a matter of some dispute. All frameworks (P21, ATC21S, EnGauge, OECD, EU, ISTE, NAEP, and UNESCO) agree that developing skills related to collaboration, communication, ICT literacy, social skills, and citizenship, should be core objectives. However,  self-direction and adaptability were only mentioned by a few, and risk-taking was only mentioned by EnGauge:

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 11.03.21 am
Comparative analysis of of international frameworks for 21st century skills

As a teacher practicing within the IBO framework, I’ve been prescribed a set of skills to learn and teach called ATTL (Approaches to Teaching and Learning). This framework aligns nicely with the competences identified above, in the far-left row, which all eight policy institutes agreed were essential. However, each skill contains multiple–in some cases infinite (‘social-skills’?!) strands. Though the IBO provides a list of strands related to each, it is also recognised that these strands should be context-specific, to meet the needs of learners in specific locations, at particular stages of development. This links to a second challenge for successful integration.

A key issue identified by all frameworks concerns the role of teachers and their professional development (Voogt, J, and Roblin, N.P., 2012, p. 311). Teaching 21st century skills rests on the assumption that teachers possess the competences to be taught, and have a clear understanding of the mission before them. The IBO has provided indicators for teachers to identify and assess most of the core skills mentioned above (and a more comprehensive treatment will be available on the OCC soon). Yet, discussions I’ve had recently with IBO teachers and coordinators from Canada, Japan, Australia, and the U.S., suggest a lot of work needs to be done to support effective implementation. It seems that a policy to make sure teachers understand the rationale behind these changes, strategies to implement them authentically in the classroom, and a rubric to promote precise and constructive feedback from teachers and between students would be a useful phase one. For those fortunate enough to have strong learning support or curriculum development teams in place, perhaps the transition will be less rocky. For the rest of us, re-imagining PD, with an emphasis on developing a shared discourse and a community of shared practices, and using ICT to support more effective feedback, would go some distance in addressing the challenges ahead. As teaching practices often inform a teacher’s sense of professional and personal identity, strategies to encourage staff “buy-in” to unfamiliar methods might prove the most formidable challenge of all. Facilitating a growth mindset amongst the staff would be another key component of successful implementation.

Of the frameworks mentioned above, Melbourne based ATC21S is actively pursuing models for assessing 21st C. skills. The focus thus far has been on rubrics for assessing ‘ICT literacy’ and ‘collaborative problem solving.’They prefer the term ‘collaborative problem solving’ over ‘collaboration,’ as effective team-work is typically aimed at reaching a specific goal–setting collaborative tasks that align with the insights of ‘problem-based-learning’ could therefore create the conditions for effective collaboration?

Collaborative problem solving is broken down into three components. ( ‘Perspective-taking’ may be a useful strategy for developing ’empathy,’ and ‘social-regulation’ provides a constructivist twist on ‘self-management.’):

  • Participation Skills
  • Perspective – Taking Skills
  • Social Regulation

Here is a selection of skills related to collaborative-problem-solving, with three developmental stages:

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 9.11.29 am

Source: ATC21S

As 21st century learning inches ever further to the core of our teaching practice, it is crucial educators reflect on both the opportunities and challenges. Developing a shared understanding of the rationale and skills involved, inter-disciplinary strategies for meaningful integration, and a rubric to empower both teachers and students capacities for assessment, seem to be necessary components for success. Attention to the psychological stress placed on teachers in the process of transforming their practice, and an awareness of the link between a teachers practice and their sense of self, could also promote a more sustainable integration.

Would be great to exercise our own skills of ‘collaborative-problem-solving’ and continue this discussion here or elsewhere…  Thanks for reading!



Jake Voogt & Natalie Pareja Roblin (2012): A comparative analysis of international frameworks for 21st century competences: Implications for national curriculum policies, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44:3, 299-321.

To link to this article click here




Is ‘Inquiry-Based Learning’ too Narrowly Defined?

Last week while scanning Twitter for ideas, a chat was going on that caught my interest: #inquirychat. Seeing the host and participants were speaking with experience and authority on the subject, I jumped in. The initial questions were on the successes and failures of implementing ‘inquiry’ into the classroom. My first question to the forum might seem silly to some of you reading this post, in essence, ‘what do we mean by inquiry in the classroom’?

‘Inquiry-Based Learning’ is a recognised foundation for the IB / MYP, and from the discussions seen on Twitter and elsewhere, the trend is universal. Inquiry-based learning as it is widely understood today involves the following aspects: 

  • The use of open learning, where there is no prescribed target or result.
  • A focus on process, rather than, or in addition to the final product.
  • A focus on questions generated from the students own interests.
  • Student- centred and teacher guided.
  • Focus on real-world applications.
  • A constructivist approach to learning where students have ownership of the learning.
  • Involves asking questions, gathering and analysing information, justifying conclusions, and taking action.

I’m familiar with this list, and I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the methods and learning outcomes inscribed within this approach. However, I’m also a literalist, and when I hear the term “inquiry-based learning,” and see it applied to discrete “projects” rather than a daily, ongoing routine of educating both the student and teacher, it appears to be missing an important, I’m tempted to say THE, point.

The point of inquiry, classically understood, is first and foremost a disposition, a way of existing in the world. It is about being non-dogmatic, which is to say open to new ways of knowing, IF these ways of knowing are supported with sufficient evidence and explanations. In this stance of provisional agnosticism, ‘inquiring’ or questioning is the natural means of engaging with the world around you. Inquiry understood in this way was illustrated most clearly in the dialogues of Socrates, who, through rigorous questioning, revealed how the concepts that structured Athenian society–justice, beauty, right and wrong– were shallowly understood. Fortunately, this way of being in the world still finds its exemplars, like Michael Sandel at Harvard. Have a look at the video below, to see ‘inquiry’ approached as a routine of education, rather than a discrete instance. (The video was shared by a participant of the #inquirychat):

If you liked this video, there’s lots more here. 

Inquiry-based learning has the potential for being a revolutionary force in education. But understood as a discrete opportunity afforded to kids at the end of a unit, to assess understanding or a certain set of skills, seems to me a half-measure. If inquiry is not a demonstrated spirit of educating, imbued with openness, uncertainty, curiosity, and the constant questioning that results from these attributes, then it seems a bit idealistic to expect students to generate these attributes ‘on cue,’ when a project appears on their unit planner. To make inquiry-based learning a reality in the deeper sense, the daily, existential sense, involves what I’m tempted to call a spiritual shift– a belief that a “teachers” own deepest assumptions might not be as iron-clad as they had hoped, (or required)– rather than a re-arrangement of one’s pedagogical tool-box. If a classroom can be permeated daily with this spirit of openness and friendly agnosticism, it seems students will be better prepared to question and explore come “project” time. Or does it?