Tag Archives: personalised learning

Online platforms for personalisation, analytics and immediate feedback #fliptm #TMACT

Last week I presented at the Gungahlin College Flipped TeachMeet on the topic of personalisation, feedback and analytics. The format of the TeachMeet was a bit different to the usual – presenters recorded their presentation via video and posted it online prior to the event, so the focus of the sessions was on discussion around the ideas. My video is embedded below and explains some of the tools I’m using to personalise learning, provide automated feedback to students and analyse data about student achievement to help identify where additional support is needed.

In the video I talk about a few platforms I’ve used extensively in class:

  • Grok Learning – Learn to program in Python, and get instant feedback every time you attempt a problem. For teachers, the dashboard really is an excellent tool that gives you an overview of student progress and helps you identify what topics students need extra support with.
  • Treehouse – This platform contains guided lessons and activities that help you learn a range of topics. For us our focus is on Web Design/Development, and it allows students to pick and choose individual paths to help them learn the skills and knowledge that is most suitable for where they’re at. Like Grok, feedback is given in browser so you can quickly see if you understand the material being presented.
  • Schoology – Our LMS provides us with automated quiz/test tools that give us a way of quizzing students and checking that they are grasping the material. Since students are provided with feedback on their progress, they can use this to identify their areas of strength and weakness and seek targeted assistance from teachers.
  • Oppia – A new open-source platform that allows users to create “explorations” that provide guided, personalised paths through the learning of material. Explorations can direct students to different activities depending on their answers to previous questions, which better targets the individual needs of each student.

There was a lot of enthusiasm on the night from teachers of many disciplines and school levels for Oppia in particular due to its flexibility, and I’m looking forward to working with some teachers at my school to see just how powerful it can be as a platform. I’m even thinking I’d be interested in contributing to the codebase as the group of us identify features we see as integral to it becoming a useful tool.

The K-12 Horizon Report 2013 lists learning analytics as a trend we’re likely to see having an impact in schools in the next 2-3 years, and its clear based on tools like Oppia and some of the third-party proprietary tools I’ve seen recently that data is becoming increasingly important in education circles. Being able to harness that data to better meet the needs of our students won’t put us out of a job – what it will do, though, is allow us to utilise our time better and focus on the things that are important to our students, rather than what might be important from our curriculum authorities.

Thoughts from the 2014 FutureSchools conference #FutureSKL

I’m currently sitting at the Gate Lounge 33 at Sydney Domestic Airport (well that’s where I was when I started writing the article, but it’s now the weekend and I’m at home finishing it up) after spending the last 2 days at the 2014 FutureSchools conference. If I was to sum up my thoughts in a few words, they’d probably be Good things are happening in schools, but there’s so much more to do.

As a general rule, the presentations were pretty good. I felt there were some that focussed a bit too much on the technology and/or the learning spaces themselves rather than the pedagogy that goes along with it, but some of that I believe comes back to not all of the presenters being “professional” presenters in a sense. My only criticism of the event overall would be that it was very much a “sit and listen” type of event – interaction with presenters was pretty low (with the exception of Eric Mazur who did a great job involving us in his presentation – see the section on Peer Instruction below), and that made the later sessions difficult to stay completely focused on. What we really needed were some opportunities to work with smaller groups of delegates to explore interesting ideas and talk about the details of what was being presented – much of it was big picture, and didn’t address some of the more pressing issues like how to bring staff along and/or break down preconceptions or negativity about change.

Learning Spaces: an enabler, not an answer

Presenters from a few different schools gave us some insight into the way they are using some of their learning spaces. Presenters from Brisbane Boys College, Scotch Oakburn College in Launceston, Stonefields School in Auckland, Mordialloc College in Victoria and Anglican Church Grammar School among others all demoed their learning spaces and talked about the ways they’re re-thinking how they’re used to keep kids engaged with school.

We’re very lucky at my school that, as a newly built school that is only a few years old, the learning spaces that have been set up throughout the building have a lot of variation and scope for being very flexible. What has tended to occur, though, is that each of the spaces in the building has become setup and used in a relatively static and permanent way – although there is scope for flexibility and dynamism, in many cases very little is done to change how each is space is used throughout the year. The result is that the methods used to teach in those spaces are very typical of what would be observed in regular classrooms – evidence that having flexible spaces alone is insufficient to change teaching.

That doesn’t really come as a surprise – technology works in much the same way. Replacing books with laptops doesn’t automatically create classrooms that aren’t teacher-driven (and in fact, I’ve seen many examples where the only difference is that students type notes from the board rather than writing them), nor does swapping out blackboards and chalk for IWBs. Like technology, learning spaces are an enabler – both provide us with new capabilities that wouldn’t have been available otherwise.

Think of it this way – if all students have at their disposal is books and pens, then every task they do will involve writing, drawing and/or conversation with content provided by the teacher. However, with technology, not only can they also do things like make movies, record their discussions and collaborate in real-time on the same documents, they can also access an unlimited amount of information to help consolidate their learning, and use a range of different resources that might be more appropriate for their learning styles (opting for a video or podcast series rather than text-heavy web sites or articles).

Many teachers are unfamiliar with the technology and unsure of how to use it to teach in new and interesting ways. The same can be said for learning spaces – if all you’ve ever known is rows of desks and a board at the front of the room, how then can you be expected to take advantage of the options provided by highly flexible learning spaces?

Interestingly, in the case of flexible learning spaces, many of the benefits they offer are only really available if they are coupled with technology. While we can configure learning spaces to provide students with areas for group discussion and collaboration, individual learning, large-group presentation of information and one-on-one support, if we’re relying on a single source of information or content delivery then the flexibility is of no value. To really take advantage of flexibility of space, we need to have lots of content options and activities that students can be engaged in that will allow them to learn and reflect in ways that make sense to them.

So how do we make better use of the spaces at our disposal? We need to invest a lot of time into teaching teachers how to teach in that environment. Notice I didn’t say “show teachers how to facilitate learning in that environment”? That was intentional. In many cases, students learn in spite of what their teachers do – the learning can often happen no matter what is going on. However, when teachers are effective teachers (i.e. they “teach” well, for a given interpretation of “teach”), then the learning that is possible for students is far greater than it would be otherwise.

My plan for this year is therefore twofold – by developing a strategic plan for the growth, use and implementation of technology for teaching and learning at the school, I’ll be seriously considering the role of professional development to not only address the technical and pedagogical needs of staff with respect to technology, but with respect to the learning spaces as well.

Changing Culture: Consultation, Community Involvement and Nurturing Innovation

What was really clear from early presentations where schools had successfully changed the culture was that in every case, without exception, students and the general community were involved in the process. Presenters made it very clear that a large part of what kept students interested in the school was the building of relationships with their teachers and school leaders, and that empowering them to drive aspects of the decision-making process was the easiest way to get buy in from the student body. We’re currently in the process of investigating a new timetable structure to cope with the increasing enrolment numbers at our school, and it gave me the idea – why don’t we have the students organise a community forum to collect ideas and present options about what this might look like? It is one of the things I’m going to suggest as part of our strategy over the next few months, and I’m hoping that other members of the leadership team will see the value in such a move. Does it mean that the student voice will be the only determinant of any change? No. But it will mean that their voices will be heard and can be considered as a part of the change process.

The other barrier to change that was discussed at length was the perception of what school should look like that came from parents – it was interesting to hear how principals who had only recently taken up their positions were contacted by families to find out if they were prepared to “stop the madness” that was going on in the school. As previous participants in the education process, many parents “know” what school is and are afraid of any departure from that picture. Successful schools that have managed to shift their pedagogical approaches away from teacher-centric, content-focused delivery practices to student-directed, teacher-guided, personalised learning unanimously had parents heavily involved in the transition. There was a significant investment in parent education; bringing teachers, students and parents together to openly share what it was each stakeholder group thought education should look like and what tools and environments would facilitate it. The greatest allies for schools in these conversations were the students themselves – it turns out that kids are much better at convincing their parents something is a good idea than the school is, and when all parties agree the transition is smoother and much quicker than it might otherwise be.

Stephen Harris, Principal of Northern Beaches Christian School, presented his “steps” for successful cultural change:

  1. Observe the situation, and involve everyone in the process;
  2. Have a clear vision about where you’re headed;
  3. Develop the vision with others – build it and it allow it to grow;
  4. Encourage ideas that support the vision through space and collaboration;
  5. Act on those ideas; and
  6. Evaluate progress regularly and adapt the vision based on what is working.

It’s a relatively simple idea, but for me I think the key is definitely defining the vision and having others buy-in to it – making it a shared vision so that everyone is working towards the same goal. I think of it a bit like a soccer team – everyone plays a very specific role, with  each working towards getting the ball in the opponent’s goal while not giving up their own. Without the goals at either end, we’d have a lot less structure and nothing concrete to work towards, and there’d also be no way of determining the success of any unplanned moments of brilliance that might come along.

Structures that encourage innovation

Another thread throughout many of the presentations was that innovation and change comes about only when supported by appropriate structures. Some of these are organisational, others physical. I’ve extracted the ones that struck a chord with me below.

Leadership Structures

A couple of schools talked about the way they’ve structured their leadership teams to both take advantage of the skills and expertise of their staff and to encourage creative thinking and innovation. NBCS and the Australian Science and Mathematics School both threw out the traditional, faculty-based organisational structure and instead have adopted more fluid and dynamic approaches that encourage experimentation and collaboration rather than reporting up and down the chain of command. This primarily achieves two things:

  • it eliminates the expectation of management that a hierarchical, top-to-bottom structure creates, encouraging every person in the organisation to take on leadership roles and innovate, and shifting the emphasis of senior members of the organisation towards visionary thinking and innovation; and
  • it breaks down the barriers that are naturally created by the independent business units common in hierarchies – typically in high schools, this is the faculty unit.

I love the idea that teachers should spend more time working with colleagues from other disciplines and sharing their thoughts more widely, and that leaders are given greater opportunity to define what the important aspects of their roles are.

What was really evident, however, was that for this approach to work, everyone must be invested in the vision and strategic direction of the school. There’s a significant amount of groundwork necessary to put that in place before you can just flip the organisation on its head.

Personal Learning Time

At our school, students are not timetabled on every class which provides them with their own Personal Learning Time. The idea is that by providing students with some flexible time they can use to focus on their study in a way that best suits them, and can seek out extra assistance from teachers and peers outside of regular class times. It’s a good idea, but it isn’t always utilised by students as well as it could be.

Many of the schools that presented talked about the way they have adopted “20% time” similar to organisations such as Google and 3M. The idea being that students can choose something to work on – absolutely anything, with no restrictions or limitations – and use 20% of the timetable at school to explore their interest. There is an expectation that they will present what they learn back to their teachers and peers, then move on to another topic or interest.

Across the board, the schools that have adopted it have said it is one of the most popular initiatives amongst the student body. It got me thinking – we’ve got that space in the timetable (which in our case works out to be about “16% time”), what if we could recognise anything a student did that sat outside of the regular curriculum during that time? I think there’s merit in the idea, and I also believe that there’s a good chance that the learning that takes place would flow on to better results in other subjects too. I’m going to investigate how we might be able to get that happening – providing some kind of framework for students to better utilise their non-timetabled school time, but still crediting them with some formal recognition of the learning that takes place. I’m sure it’s possible.

The Staffroom

I’ve never been a fan of staff rooms. Personally, I find that while they’re great for developing collegiality amongst the people that share a space, what they also tend to do is create separation between different staff rooms as a result of people not being challenged or exposed to alternative ideas on a regular basis. When there is little need to relocate yourself, busy days often mean you just don’t bother to do so. I’ve always made it my mission to try and get around to other staff rooms regularly so that staff know who I am and I get a chance to hear a bit about what they’re doing. I haven’t been as successful this year as I have previously (moving to a new school no doubt being a factor), but it’s something I’m working on.

To counter the negative effects of the staff room, some schools have begun the process of eliminating them altogether, or at the very least blurring the line between what defines a staff room “space”. Instead, staff are encouraged to work in locations that make the most sense at the time for their work – if it is collaborative planning, moving to a space with a round table and plenty of whiteboard space is going to be much more conducive than a standard staff room space might be. Equally, if what you’re working on requires uninterrupted attention, finding a private area where you can shut yourself away for a short period of time to finish something up is equally important.

I don’t believe that you can just get rid of the staff room altogether – I think there’s a need in any school environment for teachers to be able to separate themselves from the students at times, especially when you consider the many situations where privacy is important (for the students and the staff). But I do believe that you can minimise the amount of staff room space in a school. A large space or two with options for lots of people to work in different ways strikes me as the ideal – just like we want to create dynamic, fluid spaces for learning in different ways, so too should we be looking at these options for staff. Besides, there will always be the occasional empty space at various times of the day where classes aren’t happening, and that could be useful too.

The biggest blocker here would no doubt be staff themselves – many staff have become comfortable working in the current paradigm, and to change would be a fairly significant shift. We’re also used to many procedures in schools that tend to work on the assumption that teachers reside in staff rooms and that those places aren’t fluid – there’d be a lot of work that needs to be done to alter administrative processes and implement solutions that would allow us to operate in a different environment.

Information and technology

The Library

Without a doubt, one of the most contentious spaces when any suggestion for change is made is the library. I love books – I’ve got a decent sized collection of my own at home, but the reality is that when I go looking for information nowadays often books are not my first point of reference. There are some situations where books are absolutely fantastic – one of the most challenging things I find at the moment when teaching accounting is that while there is plenty of information online for techniques and processes that apply to accounting generally, finding information about things that are specifically Australian that are accessible to students can be really tough. There are books that do this well, and their value cannot be understated.

So when I suggest the following, don’t interpret it as me being a book-burner or anything – libraries need to change in a BIG way. We don’t need anywhere near the amount of books that is typical in a conventional, established library. We also don’t need the library to contain classrooms, labs of computers or tables set up only for individual study. The library has the potential to become an energising hub of information, research and thinking, but libraries with older designs don’t conjure up those images anymore.

I see libraries now as being much more multi-modal, and there are many librarians out there that completely understand it. Our TLs are regularly recording and sourcing video for students that they make available through our media servers, and this supplements our book collection. They do a great job and I value the TL role immensely.

However the spaces in libraries need to reflect this. More small study areas, lots of variety in the spaces available, collections of resources such as podcasts, videos, lectures and media from educational institutions across the world – that’s what is relevant to our students today. And, best of all, a lot of this material is actually free. The problem is the quantity and quality of what is out there, but that’s where the real value of the Teacher Librarian is – they know how to curate and catalogue amazing content.

To be able to do this effectively, TLs need the time and technology to support this move, and some input to help design library spaces that are attractive and inviting to students of all ages.


Communication is never the best it can be – it just isn’t possible. It’s a multi-faceted problem that gets so complex with new forms of communication that keeping up is a job in itself. But one of the things that always frustrates me is the amount of time spent on communicating administrative information when instead, what inspires learning and excites people is hearing about interesting developments in a range of areas.

We’ve got large screen TVs hooked up across the college that are capable of streaming all types of media from a content server. What exactly are they used for? Right now, RSS feeds of news, the school Twitter feeds and similar, but most of what goes up there is administrative – this event is coming up, don’t forget exam week etc. None of the content is designed to challenge thinking – it’s used to disseminate information.

That information shouldn’t dominate those screens. Sure, it’s important and it needs to be shared, but surely there are better ways to make use of significant amounts of display time. I’ve been thinking – what if the administrative announcements were up during certain times of the day, while during others the screens were showing streams of what was happening in the performing arts, or video of some interesting science experiments, or a major cosmological event, or a public lecture from a local university on a human rights issue? One of the ways I think we can better engage students with that kind of information is to make it easily accessible, and to give them a reason to go back and look at the screens on a regular basis. If all we’re doing is feeding them information they are getting from other sources (such as their smartphones), it’s an opportunity that’s going to waste.

I’m not completely sure of the capabilities of our systems, but I understand that the server and software is quite powerful. I’m going to incorporate better use of our existing systems into the strategic plan for technology.

The power of Peer Instruction

For me, the best session of the conference was the second day keynote presented by Eric Mazur from Harvard University. I mentioned it earlier because of all of the sessions that were held, it struck me as being the most interactive. While others attempted to involve us, the enthusiasm Eric generated as a result of the use of peer instruction in a restrictive lecture space was enlightening. What was surprising wasn’t that it worked – it’s something I’m sure all teachers have used before – but that it made me feel like a student that wanted to learn again. By the end of his lecture, I’m sure that every single person present was excited about thermal expansion in solids, or at least was hooked enough to need to know the answer to his question.

Mazur has delivered other lectures on this same topic in the past – his Confessions of a Converted Lecturer video is available on YouTube (this version is 80 minutes long, but there is also an 18 minute summary) – but ultimately, what he showed us was that students, when involved in each other’s learning, are able to teach others and convince them of a correct answer if they’re given the time to do so. Using real-time feedback and response systems, he was able to demonstrate how once a critical mass of students in a large group had understood the concept, he could have the group collectively find the correct answer to a problem very quickly. Even in a lecture, where the teacher remains at the front and direct access to them by the students isn’t possible, it is enough to have students speak with the people around them.

He’s known as the “Pioneer” of Peer Instruction and Flipped Learning, and he spoke about both of these topics in his presentation, but the clear contrast with his presentation compared to many others was that in his case, his focus was on the change in pedagogy that was necessary for student improvement. Not once did he discuss the flipped classroom beyond the idea that the video became the tool for delivery of content and the classroom experience the change to engage with the material through problems and practice – once that had ben established, all of his time was spent emphasising that the classroom environment and teacher actions had to change to ensure that opportunity was provided to the students.

I’ve taken a lot of what he modelled on board and I’m going to endeavour to do a lot more to provide my students with as many opportunities as possible to practice and share their learning experiences. I’m convinced that it needs to be a fundamental part of what learning should look like in all classrooms. That too will be a factor in the development of our technology plan.

Ultimately, a LOT to think about and share with the leadership team at school on my return. Was it a worthwhile two days – for me, absolutely. For the school? That’s dependent on the willingness of everyone to experiment a little and enact elements of what has been successful in other places. I think there’s a lot there that has the power to improve what we do.

Professional Learning: The Big Picture

Without a doubt one of the most difficult things anyone can be expected to do is come up with an event that is going to be an effective learning experience for around 500 people, and yet that’s what happens every year at the All Colleges PD Day here in the ACT – when every teacher in one of our senior secondary colleges is brought together to the one location for a professional development event. I attended as a participant for the first time since 2008, and I have to start by giving massive kudos to the organisers of the day – it ran well, participants seemed to be generally engaged, and from what I could see most people were pretty positive about the whole thing.

I’ve organised some smaller scale professional learning events myself, and whilst the logistics can be tricky and complications about in terms of venues, marketing, catering etc., the hardest part in my view is coming up with sessions and activities that everyone will benefit from. I’ve spent many days trying to work out what kinds of things are going to be of interest to the participants, and whilst I think I’ve got a pretty good track record, looking at the survey feedback shows that every time there is always a small percentage of people who don’t get as much out of the event as I would have liked. Sure, some of it probably comes down to people who may not want to engage in the first place, but the counter argument to that is the same we can use in our classrooms – if the session(s) had been engaging, they may have participated anyway.

However this post is less about my experiences on the day (in a nutshell, I felt the sessions were pitched at the school leadership teams and in particular Principals and Deputies more so that the classroom teachers, which was fine for me but I know some colleagues would have liked more targeted PD that related more directly to their classroom practice), and more about the approach to professional learning we take as a profession in general.

It’s a recent phenomenon in the ACT (and relatively recent across Australia, generally speaking) that teacher registration is now a part of our profession, and to maintain or get your accreditation requires completion of 20 hours (in our case) of professional learning. The complete details of teacher registration in the ACT can be found at the ACT Teacher Quality Institute website (and there are other bodies in other jurisdictions) and although this could easily turn into an argument about the merits (or lack thereof depending on your perspective) of registration, I’m going to try to minimise that and instead focus on how professional learning is recorded. Our hours need to be made up of 10 hours of accredited learning (i.e. certified by the TQI as addressing the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and delivered by registered training providers) and the remaining hours comprised of “teacher-identified” PD. There is quite a lot of flexibility in the teacher-identified learning – it may be comprised of reading, research, participation in online seminars – the range and variety is quite broad.

Unfortunately, I hear many teachers complaining about the TQI or equivalent in their respective states and territories. These arguments often take the form of “I get nothing for my money” and “why should I pay for the privilege of being a teacher” and similar grumblings about a lack of value for our registration. However, professions generally all require registration with a national standards body to be able to practice. Over time these organisations have filled a significant role in ensuring the quality of each profession, and I think we have to keep in mind that this is all still very young in education. There is little money, no history and a struggle against a status quo that in my view isn’t acceptable, so the fact that it is causing some disruption is probably a good thing.

It was emphasised during presentations by the TQI that they acknowledge that the majority of teachers engage in more than 20 hours of PD a year, and that this isn’t meant to be particularly onerous in terms of recording the PD we do undertake. The role of the TQI portal is to give us a means of capturing the professional learning we do engage with, and provide us with an easy way to reflect on the event/activity and refer to it again at a later date. The reflection is important – it encourages us to go back and revisit what it was we got out of the event, and I believe that has value because this is what often triggers experimentation or revision of something you’re already doing.

And yet, even though there is an acknowledgement of the variety of professional learning opportunities that teachers engage in, and an admission that what is being mandated is only a very small part of what would generally be considered normal for a teacher, the way PD is delivered remains largely the same. At big events such as this one, the topics are generally chosen to be relatively broad and not directly applicable to any one learning are or discipline. What this means is that over a teaching career, the topics available at these kinds of events become quite limited – student engagement, pedagogy, curriculum development – since these can all be seen as applicable to all teachers regardless of subject area.

When you ask teachers which PD they have found the most valuable in their teaching lives, they rarely respond with a big event where the presentations are generic. You get responses like “I went to an absolutely amazing Shakespeare workshop that changed the way I teach Shakespeare” or “I spent a few days at a programming event where I learned so many new ways of engaging kids with computer science concepts it has changed the way I work in the classroom” – the responses all tend to be very closely aligned to the curriculum content as well as the broader topics mentioned earlier.

The big events provide opportunities for face-to-face contact that can create connections and generate conversations that just aren’t possible in virtual/online/video-conference events, or through individual research or reading, but that alone shouldn’t be the reason we attend them. One of the great things about ACEC (Australian Computers in Education Conference) and other learning area equivalent events is that when you go along to them you’re likely to find something that you can directly apply to your classroom, and to have conversations with other teachers who are teaching the same kinds of things you are. However, they carry with them the additional expenses of travel and accommodation (except for when the event takes place in your home town), and this can make them difficult to attend on a regular basis.

Ultimately, when we look to what PD we want to attend in a given year, the decision is going to come down to what will best address our individual needs at that particular time. This is going to be different for each one of us, and we can’t expect that any single event is going to tick all the boxes for everyone who attends.

But, doesn’t this sound like our classrooms? If we are expected to design activities and classroom materials that cater to the individual needs of our students, why is it that so much of our PD doesn’t do the same for us? And if the PD doesn’t do that for us, are we vocal enough about it to help drive the change necessary to make it better?

If all we do is complain about how boring or ineffective PD is, it will never change – just like the kid who does nothing but whinge about how boring school is and is given no reason to think otherwise will never get involved in class.

So over time, my hope is that the TQI will be able to help us with that – that the accreditation, evaluation and reflection process involved in all of the professional learning activities that take place will provide a means for identifying the types of learning people find most enjoyable, engaging and effective. That the programs being accredited align with the teaching standards in a way that we find truly useful, so that when we are looking for PD we’ll have a reliable place to source it. And that by going back and looking over our reflections and evaluations we’ll be able to identify those elements of teaching that excite us, engage us and keep us passionate.

If it gets to that, then from my perspective the fee I pay for teacher registration will be money well spent.

Differentiating the Curriculum for senior students

Today was my first official day at my new school, and as is typical here in the ACT it was a whole school professional learning day. The topic that the school decided on last year was differentiation – ensuring that all students can access the curriculum and have opportunities to show their learning regardless of any disabilities or learning difficulties that may create barriers for them to succeed. It is a topic I’ve done many PL sessions on in the past, so whilst I think the day itself was well organised and run, I didn’t feel like there was much “new” information presented for me to take in.

That said, one thing I was really impressed with was the way staff conducted themselves during the day – it is clearly something that the school has identified as an area that needs to be improved on this year. While these events tend to be a lot of information presenting, there were opportunities to get details that were specific to the needs of students in my classes so it wasn’t so general as to be of limited use.

We were provided with some resources to look at before attending, exploring differentiation and/or diversity from a range of perspective. Websites, presentations, videos, policy documents – it was a pretty good collection of readings that addressed many of the aspects that are important to understand the issues and complexities of differentiating successfully. Of course, Gardner and Bloom’s came up, as did the work of Maker and others known for their differentiation research, but it was interesting to see where the emphasis on differentiation is placed by various educational jurisdictions. Some tend to focus on the gifted and talented end of the spectrum, while others look very much as disability and severe learning difficulties. Our interpretation was much broader, and tries to capture students who, for any reason, may hit a barrier to learning. These could include the above, but may also be as simple as moving around a lot due to a parent working for Defence, being a non-native speaker, being independent and needing to balance work as well as school or in more extreme cases being a primary carer for a relative at home, among others.

The video below is just one of the resources – I’ve provided links to everything at the end of this post if you want to explore some of them on your own. This one provides a good starting point for thinking about the importance of keeping students engaged with their learning through variety, and ensuring that school doesn’t just end up being a waste of time (for all involved).

One of our sessions consisted of us choosing from 8 different activities and working in small groups to either consider some of the issues surrounding differentiation or to work through a differentiation activity. I found a few of these interesting for a couple of reasons:

  1. Differentiation strategies abound on the net for primary school teachers. Adapt one of more to a college setting.
  2. To what extent does differentiation differ from simply good teaching?
  3. Choose a model of differentiation (or make up your own) and use it to develop a differentiated lesson or unit of work.
  4. Write a soliloquy/sonnet/dramatic monologue from the learning environment to the teachers of the college.
  5. Evaluate a differentiation strategy of model of differentiation.
  6. Why do some of our most gifted students get bored in class?
  7. To what extent is differentiation a ‘machine-gun’ approach to the teaching of students with diverse needs? Aim, pull the trigger and hope for the best!
  8. Choose any content. Fill out the boxes in the Blooms-Gardner’s matrix.

I worked with one of the science teachers on the last activity, mainly because I have done quite a bit in the past on this topic and I thought I’d go to the smallest group and contribute there. We only had about 25 minutes to work on our matrix, but the result of that (which we’ll probably go back to and refine at some point – some of the notes are a bit rough right now) is visible here.

The statements that I found the most interesting, though, were 2 and 7. One of the biggest gripes I have with the discussion around many of these topics and issues is that they are often discussed independently of what it means to actually be a teacher. If I didn’t differentiate within my classroom, I wouldn’t feel as if I was actually performing my duty as a teacher. My role is to instil in all of my students a passion for learning – what they learn in my class is, to a degree, secondary. And the only way I can do that is to engage them, which means taking into account their individual circumstances and making sure that they have every opportunity to tie their own experiences in with the material and activities I present to them.

The best way to do that, of course, is to know your students – relationships are in my mind the most important part of being a successful teacher. What each relationship looks like may be different – teachers and students all have their own unique personalities; some are built on respect while others may use a shared passion as the underlying foundation. Either way, getting to know your students is the number one priority, especially early in the teaching period.

Which brings me to the machine gun analogy – I don’t believe it works for effective differentiated instruction. The image I conjure up in my mind when I think machine gun is of a general target (understanding a concept) that is simply delivered in multiple ways in the hope that something clicks for each student. It doesn’t imply any considered thought about what those strategies would be, just that there are a lot of them.

Using the strong, positive relationships your build with your students allows you to make informed choices about which strategies are going to be effective for your classroom – there’s no need to just spray bullets, because each bullet has already been carefully selected to meet an identified need.

Then, there’s the question of assessment. Ultimately, my view is that this can be done well – even when working within imposed constraints such as the HSC, VCE or (in our case in the ACT) the BSSS courses that dictate what should be taught and when. If, when we design our assessment tasks and learning activities, we keep in mind that what the students need to understand can be considered independently from the opportunities we create for them to learn, share and explore it, we can then introduce flexibility into how that learning is demonstrated to us. Where an external exam forces us to test concepts in a written form that can be hard (thankfully, we don’t have external testing), but for the assessment that occurs at the school level ensuring that how students present their learning is not restricted ensures the maximum success when it comes to marks and grading.


NSWDET Policy and Implementation Strategies for the education of gifted and talented students
A fairly comprehensive overview of the contemporary approaches to differentiation (60 pages)

NTDET Curriculum Differentiation and Education Adjustment Plans
Focus on individual needs and reasonable adjustments (23 pages)

UNESCO – Changing Teaching Practices: using curriculum differentiation to respond to students’ diversity
A vast consideration of the topic of differentiation notable for the international perspective it brings and the breadth of disadvantage that forms its context. (109 pages)

Basics of Differentiation
A fairly thorough example of how student choice boards can be applied.  The example considered is on figures of speech. (26 pages including some irrelevant ‘water cycle’ material)

NSWDET Developing Differentiated Units of Work
A range of practical charts, lists and templates that enable differentiation in a range of different and sophisticated ways (28 pages)


Are your lessons fun? (3m 20s)

Special Ed Differentiation – Some Ideas (Tiered Activities, Tic-Tac-Toe, RAFT) (5m 14s)

Why Differentiate? – Carol Tomlinson (3m 47s)

Learning Stations – Tiered Activity, Speech Bubbles, Memory, Choice (2m 55s)


Queensland Managing Learning for Diversity – Teaching
A range of adjustments suggested alongside some movements in curriculum design that are compatible with differentiation i.e. Productive Pedagogies, Universal Learning by Design (1 webpage + links)

WA Schools Plus – Helpful hints for differentiating the curriculum for all students
A comprehensive list of tips for teachers (1 webpage)

A Different Place – Examples of products
A list of different ‘products’ of learning categorized somewhat dubiously according to their potential to elicit more or less sophisticated performance. Most usefully used as an ideas source for products. (1 webpage + links)


Strategies for Differentiation: Curriculum Compacting, Tiered Assignments, Independent Projects
Very practical in nature but focusing significantly on curriculum compacting (50 slides)

Reaching all children in the classroom: an overview of differentiation strategies
Powerpoint presentation that is well pitched in terms of dealing with complicated ideas in an accessible way. Some good examples included. (32 slides)

Extending Gifted Students
An authoritative presentation on the extension of gifted students with an emphasis on creativity as well as some local research on the way gifted students prefer to learn (36 slides)


Maker and Williams Model Template
Curriculum design templates for differentiation based on the works of Maker and Williams respectively (5 pages)

Bloom-Gardner Matrix
Tool for developing activities that cater for both Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive difficulty as well as Gardner’s multiple inteligences (2 pages)

Scholarly Articles

Integrating the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy with Multiple Intelligences
Scholarly article by Toni Noble addressing planning for both differentiation on the level of academic rigour alongside also addressing multiple intelligences (21 pages)

Effective strategies for implementing differentiated instruction
Scholarly article arguing for inclusive strategies for meeting the needs of gifted and talented students in mainstream classrooms as opposed to structural solutions (13 pages)


SERUpdate June 2010
Newsletter of the South Australian Special Education Resource Unit (SERU) containing a range of articles from educators in SA schools focusing on the successes and challenges of differentiation in the classroom. (40 pages)

My TEDxCanberra Audition: Learning for the Real World

I’ve spent the last few days putting together a brief audition video for TEDxCanberra – it was suggested by another teacher that I give it a shot, and I figure I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve been doing a lot of investigation and work recently around a model of education that has students working directly with the community through projects that are interdisciplinary – an approach similar to Challenge-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning and similar models.

The audition video is on YouTube, and a quick search for TEDxCanberra will show you other potential speakers and topics.

While it’s not the greatest piece of video I’ve ever done, I think it gives a good enough picture of the message I’m sharing. I’ve seen too often in classrooms and schools activities and lessons that just don’t engage kids, but if you talk to these same kids about what they do outside of school and why they enjoy it, each time one of the key things they mention is the fact that they are involved in something. That aspect of being a part of something bigger is severely lacking in most classrooms, and there’s no excuse for that anymore. With near ubiquitous Internet access, mobile computing and information at everyone’s fingertips, we should be challenging our students to be solving big problems, and helping them make sense of the world around them to formulate answers that consider their values and ideas.

To do this effectively, we need to stop working within the artificial boundaries created by subject disciplines, learning areas or year groups. I hear colleagues saying that the Australian Curriculum prevents us from being able to do that, but that’s a narrow view of what schools can do. We have significant flexibility when it comes to implementation of the Australian Curriculum, and nothing published by ACARA suggests that subjects need to be taught in isolation. In fact, reading the curriculum documents, it is fair to say that there is an expectation that teachers look for links across subject areas to create richer educational experiences for our students.

So, it’s my hope that I get the opportunity to expand on my audition further, and to share that message with as many people out there who’ll listen. The research supporting more collaborative and holistic approaches to education is everywhere, yet high schools on the whole are reluctant to consider structures or models that vary from the existing rigid, timetabled structure of single subject courses. No one learns like that in any real world situation I can think of.

I challenge you, the next time you’re reading, watching videos or anything else, to switch off after an hour and do something else, and not return to any thought-provoking ideas that may have been stimulated previously. You’ll realise pretty quickly that sometimes you need more than an hour to really engage on any sort of real level with that topic, and in other situations, 15 minutes might be all you need.

Our students know this, yet we force them to work with a system that is older than most of our grandparents. It’s time to change – it’s been talked about for years, but talk without action may as well be silence. We do a disservice to the youth of today and the future of civilisation by refusing to consider alternative approaches to “school”.

The iPad: What does technology offer to educators?

Update: I indicated during my presentation that I would add more information based on the questions I was asked at the end of the session. See the headings at the end of this post for more information regarding accessibility issues. Thanks to all who asked interesting questions at the event!

A quick search on the Internet for information about technology in education will give you a myriad of links to information published by educators, theorists, technologists and others who identify the many potential benefits technology could bring to all levels of education. A lot of it focuses on the personalisation of learning, greater access to knowledge (both in and outside of school), and increased interactions with others that helps to make learning more relevant and real to our students. There has also been extensive study done that highlights the importance of quality teaching in harnessing the benefits of technology – the notion that no matter how impressive the technology is, without a good teacher utilising it effectively the realisation of those benefits is hit-and-miss. With so much work going on in this area, it’s no surprise that there has been extensive debate surrounding the iPad and its suitability for use in the classroom.

I’ve been asked to present a brief session at the ACT All Colleges conference on the 1st of February to explore what technology has to offer educators, with a particular focus on the iPad. As an advocate of more personalised approaches to learning, with less reliance on centralised infrastructure and a mandated set of applications/tools that students must use, I was more than happy to provide some insight form my experience and knowledge around the topic. This blog post supports the workshop session I delivered, but in a nutshell the content of the presentation was around:

  • The pervasiveness of technology in our lives and the lives of our students – the world we live in is one where just about everything we do is influenced in some way by technology;
  • The increasing emphasis on mobile technology as a means of accessing information and communicating with others;
  • The lack of a significant investment in high-quality, reliable infrastructure in schools to support the lifestyle and habits many of our students are used to in their everyday lives (which becomes even more important when there are access issues at home);
  • The potential that personal devices that are not managed by the school could have on improving the learning opportunities for students; and
  • The power of the iPad as a mobile, personal device (as demonstrated through a series of useful apps and a brief overview of its technical capabilities).

I don’t intend to go into extensive detail about any of the above here, suffice to say that there is plenty of information about each of the topics I’ve state above scattered all over the Internet and published by reputable educational research organisations. What I will do, however, is provide a brief example of why the arguments made by many that the iPad is not useful in education because it is primarily a consumption device are misplaced.

1. The library of applications available is extensive (over 60,000 and counting). Not all of the Apps are designed to allow you to “create” things, but may do, and what you can create includes music, video, 3d models of houses, diagrams and graphs… just about anything you can think of.

2. The way many of the apps are designed encourages you to consume information in new ways – FlipBoard is one example of how presenting RSS feeds, your tweet streams and your facebook feed in a different format allows you to get more details from each snippet/post being made by your friends. Aweditorium is another example (this time around music) that encourages you to investigate/browse content you otherwise may not. The more you consume – particularly if that information is different to what you would normally interact with – provides you with more information from which you can construct your own knowledge and understanding of the world.

3. iPads are personal – they are not meant to be deployed as a “class set” or in place of a laptop trolley, and I don’t think there is any real benefit in managing them at the school level (such an approach de-personalises the device). That doesn’t mean they don’t fit in education, it just means that the model of schools providing the hardware for learning isn’t relevant when considering the power of mobile technologies. What is the point of a mobile device that you can’t use the way you want to?

The whole point of this post is to get you thinking about the approach you take towards technology in the classroom – to perhaps reconsider the outlook you might have on mobile phones and/or student-owned laptops/tablets in your classes. With so many powerful and interesting applications available, it seems a shame to be telling students what they can and can’t use to learn. Technology gives us, as educators, a real means to empower students to discover the best way they learn; to encourage experimentation and risk as acceptable techniques when learning something new.

For further information:

Managing iPads in the Classroom – Issues and potential solutions

Mobile Learning (Ulearning) – Blog posts from a strong advocate of mobile learning in Qld

The Open Book Scenarios – Exploring possible futures for teaching

iPad Trials in Victoria and NT

The list of Apps I demonstrated, referred to or had installed on the iPads during my presentation:


  • Underscore Notify
  • Things for iPad
  • Evernote
  • Instapaper
  • DropBox


  • Shakespeare in Bits
  • The Elements
  • Molecules
  • Solar Walk
  • Star Walk
  • Geo Walk HD
  • Beautiful Planet HD
  • Pulse
  • Shakespeare
  • Louvre Museum
  • 3D Cell Simulation and Stain Tool
  • Nature: The Human Genome at 10
  • Houzz
  • Melbourne Museum Please Touch
  • Zinio


  • Aweditorium
  • Flipboard
  • Magic Piano
  • CourseNotes
  • AskPhil(osophers)
  • ArtHD
  • TweetDeck


  • Ideate
  • Brushes
  • ASketch
  • SketchBook Pro
  • iBand
  • iDesign
  • Home 3D
  • ReelDirector
  • Or, in IT classes, you could have students write their own!


  • Inkling
  • Popplet
  • Maptini
  • Google Docs (use in Safari – no App required)
  • Whiteboard HD
  • Skype (and other IM tools)
  • Box.net
  • Fuze

Accessibility and the iPad

The iPad has a number of accessibility features built into iOS, making it reasonably friendly to users with special learning needs out of the box. That said, the accessibility of some apps will be dependent on the features included in the app by the developer, so I’d recommend exploring those apps that you’re considering to investigate the accessibility features and whether or not they suit your needs before shelling out for a paid version of the app.

Treetops.org.au has plenty of resources surrounding Apple products and their accessibility features.