TouchCast – interactive, browsable web in a video – insert possibilities here!


For a fully interactive version of this video, go to the Touchcast website and see it in action.

Just when I thought the Explain Everything iPad app was going to be my ‘go to’ app for everything in Education, this new app comes along. Touchcast (App Store link) is described as ‘the Web in a video’ rather than video on the web. It creates fully browsable, interactive videos that embed everything from websites, Twitter feeds and Youtube videos to polls, quizzes and news tickers inside your video creation.I’ve only just started experimenting  with the app and am yet to create a completed video, but I’ve already started getting a feel for how it works. Like all iPad apps, its dead easy to use. Using it effectively and with purpose is the crucial step.

While the above video and product website gives you a fair intro to the use of Touchcast, I’ve taken some screenshots of the app to show some of the features available. I have tested most but not all (greenscreen for one – sounds like a winner if it works well!).


When you open the app, a number of themed touchcasts ( News, Business, Sports, How to, Review, Travel Diary) are available as well as the option to create one from scratch.


If you select a theme, the option to add the title and search terms is provided. This creates the Touchcast title automatically and adds relevant content related to the subject to be used straight away, as seen below with the inclusion of a news ticker from Google News, a Twitter Feed and News Headlines. You can delete these if you don’t want them. Deleting content is as simple as selecting and dragging the thumbnail at the bottom to a ‘magically appearing’ trash icon.


If you create a Touchcast from scratch, all the tools are at the bottom of the screen. The basic tools are Camera, The Record Button, Effects, Whiteboard, Titles and vApps.(see below)


There are many title styles to choose from but all have a similar look to the Titles seen on TV programs


One of the most powerful features of the app is the capacity to add vApps. These are the interactive, live and embeddable extra content elements that can be added to your video as you record. Ideally though, you would add and prepare all of these elements before recording. The screenshot below shows all of the vApp options. It’s an impressive list of options that can help create a truly interactive and educational experience in the school setting. Imagine an interactive presentation that calls up web pages, images, polls,quizzes and rating systems, slide shows from Flickr, working GoogleMaps. There is certainly potential for overkill from both teachers and students but the possibilities for screencasting/flipped lessons, multimodal presentations, digital story tellings, project presentations, reports, reviews, surveys are there to be considered.


Once a vApp is created, they appear in a thumbnail view at the bottom of the screen and with a simple touch they can appear and disappear from your video at your discretion. As I said earlier, by preparing all of the vApps you require before recording, you have great control over their use during the video creation process.

Another useful feature in the Educational setting is the Whiteboard. You can call up multiple whiteboards and switch between visible boards to record notes or invisible in order to draw or type directly onto the video or images


To help with the flow of your recording, Touchcast comes with a built in Teleprompter. This is found in the Camera tool.This allows you to write a script to follow as you record rather than umming and aahing your way through your video. You can alter the speed at any time. Also within the Camera tool options is the ability to swap between front and rear cameras


Special effects include a Green Screen option ( will check this out when I get access to my GReen Screen), video filters for different effects and sound effects such as applause, laughter and emotional expressions ( a bit cheesy, but some will like it!)




Opportunities for digital literacy and multimodal learning abound in using this app but there are some limitations that are not obvious until you start using the app.


  • First there is a 5 minute limit to the length of the video. Probably not a bad thing as you could fall in the trap of going overboard. Also this 5 minute limit doesn’t restrict you from pausing the video and viewing the interactive elements and multimedia content ( e.g. the embedded YouTube clip can be as long as it is in its source location). 
  • While you can save your project along the way as you add in all of your extra elements, once you start recording, you cannot go back and edit or continue. Once you start recording, you can pause but if you want to stop or exit the app, you can only save as a non editable video not as a project. I hope they can change this option in the future. You can re-record the video if you make mistakes and restart without losing all of your vApps, however
  • Another limitation is that the only additional video you can add is through the web. You cannot add your own video (only photos)  from the iPad. This is probably reasonable, considering the file sizes this would create. You can always add your video content to a Youtube account and then add it.
  • As this is a very recent startup, at present it is a free account for users to experiment with. At present, this means a maximum of 60 minutes of video on their site. There are plans for paid accounts in the future but as it stands now, 1 hour is it. Of course, you can store videos locally on your iPad within the app, but you can’t save to Camera Roll. You can export to a Touchcast account on their website, share via social media and post on YouTube. Be warned, though, the YouTube video is only a video – there is no interaction. That is only possible through Touchcast. However, for presentation only purposes with all the content included, YouTube export is a way of storing more content if you dont need the interaction.
  • As with most Web tools, the Under 13 caveat applies. There are some features you woud want to monitor.I have emailed Touchcast for clarification on whether it is OK to set up a teacher controlled account for students to post content from their iPad app. I’ll post their answer if and when they reply.

While it’s early days in my experimenting , I’m really excited about this app. The use of it can really encourage creativity, problem solving, planning, and a range of digital literacy skills. Like any tool, we need to make sure purpose comes before play. There is more to ed tech than engagement. We want it to make a difference. Check it out. It’s a free app but you do need to set up an account (not a lot of info required – user name and password). Would like to hear from anyone who has used it and appreciate ideas on how it can be used for educational purposes. Like most tools on the Web, they don’t start out aimed at schools, but we tend to find a way to embed them in teaching and learning.

CUE13 – Keynote: Kevin Honeycutt – Trends, Tools and Tactics for 21st Century Learning

Everyone has their favourite inspirational speaker. Every teacher out there has probably seen Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks and every school leadership team has a playlist of YouTube videos of their latest guru. This morning I just happened to discover this guy through a Scoop-it page I follow – Kevin Honeycutt. I didn’t know much about him but I do now that I’ve watched this video.

His comedic style will keep you listening through this presentation but don’t be fooled by his boyish behaviour. He has a serious message to get out there. He draws you in with his personal story which is an inspiration to every child who has struggled and every teacher who has struggled to deal with them. Then he hits you with cutting observations about the state of education and how we can better it. And don’t think it’s all about tech – the teachers that saved him didn’t use tech; they cared. Of course in amongst all the anecdotes is some sage advice on how we can use tech to improve the learning along with changing the environment and, above all, the relationships.

Take the time to watch this – it deserves more than the 654 views it has at time of writing. (Video and sound quality isn’t perfect but bear with it). If you want a quicker introduction to Honeycutt than this 45 minute video, try the one below. Similar message in less time but not as inspirational.

iPurpose before iPad

The two above images are good examples of purposeful thinking about iPad usage in schools.

One, a screenshot of an oft-used tool known as iPad As.. by, focuses on what the iPad can be used for and provides links to various apps that can be utilised for those functions. It goes without saying that it is a very useful website for schools thinking about iPads. It provides nutshell explanations of a number of apps that relate to each iPad as… category as well as pricing. It’s a good introduction into the functionality of the iPad that counteracts the misconception of iPad as consumption NOt creation tool.

The other, The Padagogy Wheel, is one of many variations on applying Bloom’s Taxonomy of skills to iPad apps. It develops from the general learning action verbs/skills we want our students to acquire to technology based activities that relate to these skills and finally to a selection of apps that can support this development.

Both tools have supported my reflection on iPad use in school and are worth checking out in detail. Having said that, though, I feel they both fall short in what is needed as a resource for implementing iPads in education. iPad as… does a good job at presenting uses for iPads in school – what they can be used for – but doesn’t really provide depth about the skill development that can arise from their use. It’s still action/activity emphasis rather than pedagogical/learning emphasis. It’s great to know that you can create videos, and it describes what the app can do,  but how will this improve learning and what learning will it improve is also a priority iPad schools need to address. I think it also pigeon-holes apps as one trick ponies – I’d like to emphasise the apps that can be used to develop many skills.

The Padagogy Wheel provides many links between skills and tech activities but doesn’t really address what iPad apps address which skills and activities specifically other than lumping them into a particular category. It too, tends to classify the apps as one trick pony options rather than seeing them as multiple category options.

Don’t get me wrong, I think both are great tools but there is room for improvement in creating a tool for supporting time poor iPads in Schools implementers in planning, selecting, justifying and integrating iPad apps in education.

Which leads me to attempt a herculean task… I’m going to try to blend the best of both of these resources and address the short falls I have mentioned by creating my own resource. But it’s going to be a work in progress for a while and I hope to get support from Mr G Online followers, subscribers, users and casual visitors.

I’ve started creating a table of important skills, some derived from the Padagogy Wheel, and actions, some derived from iPad As… What I am planning to highlight is that there are many apps that can be use for many purposes and for developing many skills. For example, I have already added “Explain Everything” to 9 categories as I see it as a multifunctional app and one worth its price because of the educational benefits it provides. Over the coming months I plan to add text descriptions to each category to explain how the apps listed address the skill or action they have been linked to and may also link them to other online sources that show them in action. I’ll also provide direct links to the App Store, as I always do on this blog when I mention apps so you can check them out yourself if you want.

Now this sounds like a big task and it is. So I do need some help. What do I want from you? Anything you can give. Just add them to the comments of this post.

  • Examples of apps that help to develop specific skills
  • Additional skills I haven’t listed here
  • Examples of apps that are multifunctional.
  • Explanations of good pedagogical practice with apps. Don’t worry, all credit will go to you when I include your suggestions.
  • Links to blog posts, websites, Youtube tutorials, open wikis, nings etc that promote good practice that I can link to from here.
  • Examples on add ons like bookmarklets for curation sites, websites that work well with iPads ( Flash-free) that can still be categorised under these headings for iPad use.
  • Spread the word regularly through Twitter, Facebook, Curation sites like Pinterest and Scoop-It to keep educators coming back.
This post will look messy for a while as new ideas get added. A blog may not be the best storage place for it in the long run. If I actually get the support – and it’s likely I won’t – and it grows I will probably move it to a separate website for better functionality. It may well be better as a wiki but  I didn’t want to move away from Mr G Online unless I needed. For easy access in the meantime, I will add this post to my main menu at the top of the blog so you can come back to check revisions. I will be planning weekly updates at least, more if I get regular contributions I can just copy and paste in from the comments.
I really hope I can get this off the ground. From reading so many blog articles, I can see there is a huge need for clarity in using tech like iPads. If you have been a regular reader of Mr G Online, you would know I am a big proponent of Pedagogy before Technology. That’s why I want iPurpose before iPad. Hope to hear from some of you soon.



iMovie Pinnacle Studio VideoScribe HD iStopMotion GarageBand  TagPad  Evernote  Notability

Explain Everything Art Maker Animation Desk iMotion HD AudioBoo
 Whether creating live action videos with iMovie and Pinnacle Studio, animated stories with iStopMotion, Animation Desk and iMotion HD or how to tutorials with Explain Everything, the iPad is a great tool for video creation. Creating videos with these apps develops organisation and planning skills, supports story telling skills in non writers and enhances creativity and problem solving in many ways.
Book Creator Creative Book Builder StoryWheel    Sonic Pics Explain Everything Toontastic Storify
Video Scribe HD
Providing opportunities for authentic writing with a real audience outside the classroom, publishing real books using the iPad can improve motivation and actual writing skills. With sufficient access, tech based writing can employ the editing capabilities to encourage children to write without worrying about rewriting from scratch. With the real possibility of publishing books online or in the iBookstore for others to read, children will be encouraged to put more effort into editing and improving their written work. The possibilities for multimedia additions allows for more creativit There are more ways of telling stories these days than text and pictures. Some students have stories inside them that don’t get shared because of a lack of writing ability. Let’s give them opportunities to tell stories orally until they are ready to write so that they can develop their imaginations and story telling for when they are ready to write. These apps all allow for alternatives to traditional writing texts, either through combining audio and images seamlessly in a variety of formats
 Strip Designer Comic Life     Book Creator iPrompter Creative Book Builder iBooks
Explain Everything
Creating stories with audio, highlighted annotations, vocabulary support through linked dictionaries, scrolling screens provides support for students who lack reading skills. Getting children to record themselves reading gives them feedback on their progress as well as support for independent practice.
Edmodo VoiceThread Skype Evernote Keynote  VideoScribe  Haiku Deck   VoiceThread
Instapaper Whiteboard Popplet Comic Life  Explain Everything  Skitch   iPrompter
Comic Life  Writing Prompts SpellBoard Tap Dictionary iMind Map 3D  Popplet  Skitch Inspiration Maps Lite
Notability Whiteboard
 Evernote Edmodo   PollDaddy Socrative   EverNote  Edmodo Pinterest  Instapaper
Notability  Notability
 Notability Hopscotch
 Skitch  Evernote  Notability    Wolfram Alpha Numbers  Hopscotch
Wikinodes Notability
 Numbers  Wolfram Alpha  Doodle Buddy    Wolfram Alpha PollDaddy  WikiNodes Notability
Edmodo  PollDaddy   Socrative Numbers  Edmodo   Puppet Pals    
TagPad Evernote EasyTag
ClassDojo  Notability
Edmodo  Socrative   ClassDojo   Explain Everything   Edmodo Socrative  Notability 
Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 8.32.29 PM   
Routes Explain Everything Skitch Geocaching Numbers Wolfram Alpha MyScript Calculator
My Maps Editor
Skitch Explain Everything  Skype    Edmodo  Skype
ArtRage Garageband Snapseed RoomPlanner
ArtRage GarageBand  Snapseed iStopMotion Skitch  Explain Everything   RoomPlanner iDraw
Phoster ScrapPad
Explain Everything   Numbers Hopscotch     Edmodo  VoiceThread Skype  iPrompter 




Maths Maps – an engaging way to teach Maths with Google Maps

It’s been around for a few years now and had plenty of interest from around the world already, but Mr G Online has only just discovered Maths Maps. From first impressions, I am absolutely blown away by the idea. The brainchild of leading UK educator Tom Barrett, (now based in Australia), Maths Maps uses Google Maps as the launching pad for Maths Investigations.

Barrett’s vision was for teachers around the world to collaborate on building Maths Maps, examples of some seen in the screenshots on the left. Here is a brief description of how it works from the Maths Maps website.

Elevator Pitch

  • Using Google Maps.
  • Maths activities in different places around the world.
  • One location, one maths topic, one map.
  • Activities explained in placemarks in Google Maps.
  • Placemarks geotagged to the maths it refers to. “How wide is this swimming pool?”
  • Teachers to contribute and share ideas.
  • Maps can be used as independent tasks or group activities in class.
  • Maps can be embedded on websites, blogs or wikis.
  • Tasks to be completed by students and recorded online or offline.

The collaboration aspect worked like this: ( again from the website)

How can you contribute?

  1. Explore the maps below for the ideas already added, follow the links to open them in a new window.
  2. Send me details of which map you want to edit and your Google email address and I will add you as an editor, follow the link from the email invite.
  3. Click on EDIT in the left panel.
  4. Zoom close to the city and it’s surroundings. (Don’t forget Streetview)
  5. Find some TOPIC ideas you can see.
  6. Add a placemark (use the right colour for the age group it is best for – see purple pin)
  7. Explain the activity in the description.
  8. Change the title to show how many ideas there are.
  9. Send out a Tweet or write a blog post to highlight this resource andencourage others to contribute.

For those of you who have never edited a Google Map before, you need a Google account to do so. Here is an annotated screenshot that shows the basic layout of the Edit stage. I know I say it a lot to colleagues who don’t believe me, but it is very easy to do, like most Web 2.0 tools.

I’m not sure I could handle the world wide collaboration long term but I think this would be very manageable at a school level if you could get together a team of teachers willing to contribute. To me, it is a great way of presenting worded problems in real life contexts. On one level, with the emphasis on teaching children how to analyse questions for standardised tests, this would be a more engaging way of presenting the problems to the children. On a more creative, engaging level, it provides opportunities for linking Maths to real problems, not just questions out of a textbook or practice test sheets.

Beyond the question level, it provides opportunities to investigate all Maths concepts as you can see from the screenshots above. Adding the investigations to an always available Google map means students can access the problems anytime, anywhere and can work at their own pace. I always see tech solutions for recording work for students to complete as a benefit, not extra work. Instead of photocopying or getting children to copy down unfinished problems in a rush before leaving, the work is stored online. It means it can be shared with other classes as well.

The image here shows how Maths Maps was set up to add problems and investigations for all grade levels so collaboration can take place across levels, allowing for differentiation possibilities. Barrett just colour coded the placemarks to match a grade level.

If students have access to Google accounts, it is a great opportunity for them to create their own investigations, taking it to a higher thinking level for them. Students in higher grades could create maps for lower grades to investigate or for their fellow classmates. If nearby schools wanted to join in, they could and, of course, you could go the Maths Maps website route and find some schools outside your area to collaborate with and learn so much more about the world.

Of course, there is no reason why it has to be limited to Maths. You could do the same investigations with geography heavy novels, historical events, geography investigations, anything you can link to real locations. It’s certainly open to a lot of possibilities and, while I know it’s easy for me to say, it doesn’t have a huge learning curve and, with collaboration, shouldn’t take too much time to create. If you are going to type out some questions and print out on paper anyway, it will not take much more effort to create this far more engaging option instead.

Here’s a direct link to one of Barrett’s embedded Maths Maps, 27 Measures Activities in Madrid. You can explore this in detail and get a greater sense of the range of real world Maths you can find in real geographic locations.

View 27 Measures Activities in Madrid in a larger map

And, since I’m one teacher who always has to practise what I preach rather than just post ideas from others, here’s my first attempt at starting a Maths Map around Melbourne – unfinished and early days but might test it out with a few of my colleagues and the Grade 5/6 students.

View Measuring Melbourne in a larger map

Creativity – the challenge of defining, developing and assessing it


Thanks to Education Week‘s blog for drawing my attention to this work on Creativity.

Creativity is defined as one of the four 4Cs of  Learning and Innovation in 21st Century learning. This OECD Creativity working paper is an interesting start in working out how we can define, develop and assess this wide ranging ‘skill’ we call Creativity. On display in the image above is a protype assessment tool developed from much research as outlined in the working paper.

It aims to break down Creativity into 5 main dispositions and then divides these dispositions into 3 sub-habits ( following is an excerpt from the working paper that briefly outlines these :

The Five Creative Dispositions Model

The five dispositions on which we decided to focus were arrived at after careful weighing up of the pros and cons of existing lists of creative dispositions in the light of our criteria. Our model explored the following five core dispositions of the creative mind:

1. Inquisitive. Clearly creative individuals are good at uncovering and pursing interesting and worthwhile questions in their creative domain.

−  Wondering and questioning – beyond simply being curious about things, the questioning individual poses concrete questions about things. This enables him, and others, to think things through and develop new ideas.

−  Exploring and investigating – questioning things alone does not lead to creativity. The creative individual acts out his curiosity through exploration, and the investigating individual follows up on her questions by actively going out, seeking, and finding out more.

−  Challenging assumptions – a degree of appropriate scepticism is an important trait of the creative individual. This means not taking things at face value without critical examination.

2. Persistent. In line with Thomas Edison’s remark above, this section has been repeatedly emphasized.
−  Sticking with difficulty – persistence in the form of tenacity is an important habit of mind enabling an individual to get beyond familiar ideas and come up with new ones.
−  Daring to be different – creativity demands a certain level of self-confidence as a pre- requisite for sensible risk-taking as well as toleration of uncertainty.
−  Tolerating uncertainty – being able to tolerate uncertainty is important if an individual is going to move ‘off of the starting blocks’ on a project or task where actions or even goals are not fully set out.
3. Imaginative. At the heart of a wide range of analyses of the creative personality is the ability to come up with imaginative solutions and possibilities.
−  Playing with possibilities – developing an idea involves manipulating it, trying it out, improving it.
−  Making connections – this process of synthesising brings together a new amalgam of disparate things.
−  Using intuition – the use of intuition allows individuals to make new connections and arise at thoughts and ideas that would not necessarily materialise given analytical thinking alone.
4. Collaborative. Many current approaches to creativity, such as that of John-Steiner (2006), stress the social and collaborative nature of the creative process.
−  Sharing the product – this is about the creative output itself impacting beyond its creator.
−  Giving and receiving feedback – this is the propensity to want to contribute to the ideas of others, and to hear how one’s own ideas might be improved.
−  Cooperating appropriately – the creative individual co-operates appropriately with others. This means working collaboratively as needed, not necessarily all the time.
5. Disciplined. As a counterbalance to the ‘dreamy’, imaginative side of creativity, there is a need for knowledge and craft in shaping the creative product and in developing expertise.
−  Developing techniques – skills may be established or novel but the creative individual will practise in order to improve. This is about devoting time to a creative endeavour.
−  Reflecting critically – once ideas have been generated, evaluation is important. We could call this ‘converging’. It requires decision-making skills.
−  Crafting and improving – this relates to a sense of taking pride in one’s work. The individual pays attention to detail, corrects errors, and makes sure the finished article works perfectly, as it should.
On first glance, I didn’t get the tool but then I found this part of the paper, which explains the purpose of the segments. Read the paper for more detail.


Here is a Scribd version of the paper in full for you to view in its entirety. I’m not commenting on it here until I have read it fully but am interested in your opinions about defining, teaching and assessing Creativity, either your own ideas or a response to this  effort from the OECD.

OECD Creativity Working Paper

S.P.A.R.K.L.E. Teaching Practices to Remember


Found this on Zite today courtesy of Eye on Education. Sometimes we need a bit of a reminder during planning to keep our lessons refreshing and engaging. While there is nothing groundbreaking in the ideas behind this infographic, it’s a useful little tool to have handy next time you fall into the trap of preparing dry, lifeless lessons.

And while I’m just about over educational acronyms, I quite like this one – S.P.A.R.K.L.E.
Sharing Powerful Activities Really Keeps Learners Engaged.

Standardised testing – Who’s at fault? System, teacher or student? Pt 2 Teacher/Student

” And something else that matters more, we’ve taught you how to think!”

Wise words from Miss Bonkers from the pages of “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!”, Dr Seuss'(with help from Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith) tribute to creativity in schools over standardisation. I open with this YouTube reading of this terrific story as I present my stance on the impact Teachers and their students have on the issue of Standardised testing. This is a follow up post to my take on the System’s successes and failures regarding this concern in education.

As teachers, we work our fingers to the bone to teach our children in the most creative and engaging ways possible. We spend hours each week resourcing quality materials, planning great lessons to get the most out of our students. Then state/national standardised testing time comes around and we completely change our teaching style and focus.

From teaching multiple strategies in Mathematics that will enable our students to be independent, ‘mental calculating’ problem solvers, we suddenly shift back to algorithms and arithmetic drills to prepare them for those quick response multiple choice tests that come by once a year. After months of sharing in the joys of literature and expressing creativity through so many media forms, we cram blocks of texts and lists of question and answer practice sessions into 3 weeks of preparation before the big Literacy test. Five months later when the results finally show up, we sit dismayed that all that effort we put in practising for the test led to little or no change in the previous years’ score. What we don’t get is that, despite the old saying, practice doesn’t make perfect.

If all we do is teach our students how to take a test by giving them superficial tips like ” two of the answers don’t make sense so it really just comes down to a couple of choices” ( not realising that we might sense that there are two stupid choices in the multiple choice options but a 9 year old doesn’t), little will be achieved for those who need to improve. If we think pointing out some key words and phrases that will probably come up in the test next week will make a difference when we can’t possibly predict every word that may appear, children will continue to stress and panic, selecting the first response that includes something they are familiar with. Why else would a child select the “Dogs chase cats” option after reading text that mentions animals of different sizes ( including dogs and cats) and the correct answer is obvious to us ” Animals come in different shapes and sizes?” What’s missing here is a lack of logic from the child…..and this is key to the problem we are perpetuating too often as teachers. We are not teaching the students to THINK.

Before a child can read a book, he can THINK about the book’s meaning, events and characters in conversation with their teacher or parents. Before a child understands what + and ÷ means she can THINK about what happens when you put two groups together or share lollies with your friends and families. Before a child can sort out the difference between isosceles and equilateral triangles, she can THINK about how to put blocks together to build a toy house. THINK about how Lego blocks can teach children about arrays and counting patterns. THINK about how we can argue about issues in their lives before a child knows how to construct a persuasive essay with paragraphs for each argument or even spell or write. As schools and Education departments, let’s start THINKING about a THINKING curriculum.

Phonics is important. Word recognition is vital. Being Level 28 by the end of Grade 2 is a must. It’s all pointless, though, if we have achieved all this without emphasising the importance of THINKING along the way. No Thinking equals no comprehension equals failed reading test. Rote counting is needed but not if the counter isn’t THINKING about what he is counting, why he is counting and is actually counting something. Any skill isolated from THINKING is not helping a child grow as a rational, problem solving student.

Dangerously Irrelevant’s Scott MacLeod, referencing a blogpost by Kevin ‘Doc’ Dougherty reflects on the importance of teaching above the test, not to the test. We need to get our students to struggle. Struggle leads to THINKING. THINKING leads to the ability to look at a question in a standardised test and logically work through a process that leads to a correct answer. I’ve been doing lots of focused standardised tests lately, not in preparation for the upcoming NAPLAN tests in May, but to identify student skill levels so we can plan differentiated programs for them. In watching the students, the number of times they are making irrational choices for answers is astounding. They’re not THINKING.

Yes, there is unfamiliar but relevant vocabulary in these tests that we have disregarded in the past. We are addressing that and exposing the students to a more sophisticated and varied language, struggle and all.As observing teachers, we are beginning to recognise that we are not presenting problems in our day to day teaching ( not test preparation ) in the variety of ways problems are presented in these tests. We are teaching down, dumbing down, teaching to the lower end of the scale, call it what you like. If we force feed every step of the process, explain every instruction without letting children struggle to work out what the instructions or questions mean, always present mathematical problems as numbers rather than written or visual problems, we let them down. We fail to teach them to THINK. So we are now making sure our presentation of problems, information and texts in general are varied and challenging.

So while it is an exaggerated work of fiction, lets look to Miss Bonkers and the school in Diffendoofer for guidance. Yes we need standardised testing to check progress and assess learning. Yes we need to see if our students are performing to a standard that is accepted across the country. But we do not have to teach the content of a test or how to take a test. We need to teach them how to THINK.

Can we reconcile standardised testing with Personalised Learning?

I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions and Professional development sessions this year in my role as Maths lead learner that have revolved around the use of standardised testing and the role of data in improving outcomes. Twitter and Ed blogs are awash with concerns about the “dumbing down” of education today because of the direction to “teach to the test” so our schools’ publicly available data can improve (which in a more positive way should be phrased as ” so our student outcomes can improve).

At the same time, we are led to “worship at the altar” of the Ken Robinsons of the world who are leading us in this inevitable Education Revolution of personalised learning, creativity, student autonomy and voice and choice. Entire Education systems have published documents directing us to following this revolution, which to make it clear I am a big proponent of, only for this lofty goal to consciously or unconsciously hit the proverbial brick wall when our latest NAPLAN ( insert own country’s national testing program here) results come a-visiting to inform us we didn’t score as well as we need to. Suddenly, we as a system turn our curriculum into a series of ‘how tos” in comprehending test questions.

Can we get the balance right? Should we balance it? Is it possible to reconcile the unfortunate reality of needing decent test scores to feel good about your school’s achievements with our far more worthy, yet politically undervalued aim of developing creative, critical thinking, community minded, self driven, connected life long learners? Can we counteract the undoubted power of the the once a year standardised test score with our own data reflecting year long achievements? In a single reflective blog post I can’t answer the question definitively nor do I have all the data the research experts can throw at us to support their view point. Nevertheless, here are my views, and my views alone on some of the burning issues we face in our ideological battle between standardisation and Personalised learning.

The question about questions
One of the biggest issues is this whole perception that we must “teach to the test.” How often have you been directed to give the children more practice in comprehending the type of questions the students will face on the test. The mistake we often make here is we try to teach the children strategies in question answering; looking for key words, identifying reasonable and unreasonable answers. What we fail to do is look at the curriculum content behind the question and analyse how effectively we are teaching that content.

In our Mathematics Leadership team, we are spending a lot of time doing just that. We are making use of the data and the actual test questions to find possible gaps, not just in content, but also in the way we present that content. What language is used in the question- do we use that language? How was the mathematical concept represented – do we represent it that way? ( example from this year’s NAPLAN test – I doubled a number then subtracted 4. I was left with 8. What was the original number? Have we used this worded problem based representation or have we just used function machines or algebra forms? It’s a perfectly reasonable question that we just never presented to our students in that way)

So our aim in our team is not to “teach to the test” but to understand how we can teach effectively what might be in the test. That might just sound like a subtle rephrasing of he same thing but it’s not. We need to improve our knowledge of how concepts can be represented. We need to build the vocabulary and contextual range of teachers and students so that in our Maths classes we can provide all possible thinking experiences that may arise in “that test”. Not by doing practice tests, but by incorporating the language and representations found in these tests in our normal engaging lessons. The same applies to Literacy tests. Do we have a great enough range of questions in our day to day English teaching that are similar to the types of questions being asked in the test?

We also use the data from standardised testing ( not just NAPLAN but an On Demand Testing system) to plan for personalised learning for our students in Maths. We are able to identify student skill levels in different areas of the Maths curriculum and cater for differing needs. I’ve written about this elsewhere in my blog.

Having said that, I still have concerns about how the impost of the testing regime affects teaching, especially in Maths. As an education system, we have spent years extolling the virtues of Habits of Mind, Multiple intelligences and Learning styles. Mounds of research has emphasised that today’s students are very much visual learners. We have implemented technology integration across curriculum areas. And yet, despite all this, the ONLY data collection system we rely on is heavily skewed towards a linguistic test. Word problems and written responses. Maths is not just word problems. Life is not full of word problems and comprehension questions.

We have to get the balance right so that we have a curriculum that values verbal, physical, hands on, real life experiences above test questions. Primary School isn’t just a means for progressing to the textbook world of secondary school, where the student is surround by word problems and nothing else. We still need to problem solve, not just word problem answer.

And we can’t just put all our eggs in the standardised test basket in terms of assessment. There is real danger that teachers will lose faith in their own judgment, their own assessment tasks, the quality work the children produce before and after “that test”. It’s all too easy to just accept the score of the national test as a reflection of the student’s achievement, especially when it is public and known to the parents. While data from tests can be effective in planning programs for extension and intervention, the tests are still just an indication of performance on that given day. We have to trust the worth of all that other data we collect during the year – the student’s work. Which means we have to make that data work better for us. This leads to my next point.

Data vs. Data
Two things evident from the data from standardised tests are
It gets analysed; and
It gets publicised
Therefore we have to make sure our other data can be analysed effectively and we have to make it public so it can be used in a positive light.

Consistent, methodical use of checklists, rubrics, annotated samples. assessment spreadsheets and the like coupled with effective means of sorting and presenting the data so that it can be effectively analysed and used for improvement is the first part of the process. The second is counteracting the power of the publication of standardised test results. We can easily bemoan the unfairness of the misuse and misrepresentation the data. We can cry foul at the cold, limited process of league tables making you look like an underachiever because you’re one percentage point away from moving from below average to average. Or you could fight back and proactively publicise your year round data showing the students are far better achievers than that one off test suggests.

This is where the power of the Internet comes in. If you’re concerned prospective parents are put off by the red mark on the website showing national test results, start advertising your school’s achievements on line. Utilise the school website and class/student blogs to post exemplary work publicly. Use digital portfolios to showcase student progress year round to their parents so they can compare what their child has achieved all year as opposed to that test from May. Kill off the bad publicity a low ranking on the test score website gives you with the good publicity of getting student work published in public forums like local newspapers, community radio or other education based websites. Enter Writing, Maths or Arts competitions that don’t judge student acheivement by 40 minute test papers but by in-depth thinking and creativity and celebrate the results. Get your school involved in community, local, national and global projects to show what your students can achieve beyond a multiple choice question booklet.

One set of data should not outweigh multiple sets. Be organised. Be proactive. Know what data you have. Make it clear and accessible. Stop saying “our children are better than these results” and start proving they are. We live in a data driven age of education. Take control of the wheel yourself instead of being driven by external data.

There is a place for standardised testing. The data it provides can help us plan for Personalised learning. We, and by we I mean teachers, principals, education departments, parents, and most of all political leaders, have to get the balance right. We can’t talk of 21st Century education revolutions and then get judged by 19th/20th century methods. Politicians need to LISTEN to us and TRUST our data. Schools and Education systems have to create, collect and publicise data that CAN be TRUSTED. That’s the balance we need to find. I’m no expert. I’m just a teacher with an opinion. Sometimes we need to be heard.

What do you think? Have you found the balance between the standardised national test and a creative, purposeful school curriculum? Join the conversation.

Creativity and Quality vs Time Constraints and Quantity

Thanks to Dangerously Irrelevant for the video and the spark for this post

What do we hope to achieve as teachers? Good grades for our students? Year over year growth based on testing, standards and outcomes? Engagement in life long learning? Develop fully their talents and creativity? All of these are important goals in education but at some point we need to decide which is the most important in this “21st Century/Contemporary Teaching/Personalised Learning Education Environment we purport to be in today.

This simple video has made me think again about my philosophy of teaching and my dream for education. Creativity is one of the great goals that drives the push for contemporary teaching and learning. Do our actions support its development?

For me, we are still driven by time constraints in the day to day reality of school. This hampers creativity.

Instead of expecting a student to write, edit and publish (whether teacher or student is satisfied or not) a text every week so we have “enough” evidence to justify the grade on the semester report card, why can’t we allow the student time to work on one or two texts over a long period of time until we are all proud of the result? Did the D student get a D because he can’t write or because he didn’t get the opportunity or support to improve his text before moving on to task 34? ( It reminds me of 2007 when my daughter came back from our Europe holiday and had to complete the statewide Gr 5 writing test, a 40 minute exercise in putting words on paper. She was ‘slightly below standard’ on the report because she didn’t finish. I should have sent the assessors her 100 page journal she compiled while on our trip, the writing that captivated family and friend alike for its detail and reflective depth.) What is it as teachers we are assessing – product or process? The time limited end result or the growth and improvement over time? Do children have to write a persuasive text, a narrative, a report, a review, an explanation, a recount, a book response all in one term or semester just because they’re all written in your system’s curriculum document? Was Shakespeare not “at standard” because he didn’t write an expository text on the strengths and weaknesses of Queen Elizabeth?

Is it more productive to assess ONE 15 page piece of quality writing over the course of the term or semester (not just at the end when its finished-no one wants to do that), progressively monitoring and assessing the language conventions, sentence structures, use of literary devices that you have discussed and taught the student over time OR give a score to 15 “OK” pieces of writing the child gets no opportunity to improve? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Our students may not want to persist at editing and improving a text over a long period of time because they have grown up in a system ( and I’ve been part of it for 25 years so I’m not criticising anyone without taking the blame too) that values quantity over quality, product over process and finishing over creating. If we really want to bring about Sir Ken Robinson’s revolution, this has to change. Collecting 20 samples of writing that are not good enough has to be replaced by a paradigm shift to working on a text until it is great. Ticks, crosses and percentage points don’t teach a student how to improve their writing ( or counting, calculating,thinking, questioning,researching, drawing). Guidance, tracking, encouragement, constructive feedback, expectation and TIME does.

Can we do it? Should we do it? What do you think? Would love to hear what others have to say. Join the conversation.