Sunday, March 8, 2015

My Blog Has Moved!

To my few, but dedicated followers: my blog has moved to a new host at DeltaLearns. You'll find it here:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Assessment for Learning

Recently, Mark Woloshen (Vice Principal at Sands Secondary in Delta) led an enlightening and thought provoking coffee house-style discussion on assessment for learning (AFL).

Click to view the Introductory Presentation

Discussion Highlights:
  • The five strategies of AFL (outlined below) generated lots of questions and the discussion that followed focussed on implementation.
  • How to inform students and parents of a change in assessment practice--informing both was considered essential.
  • If we switch to a more of learning focussed assessment method, how do we prepare percentages for report cards and defend grades to parents?
  • Cumulative marking system complements AFL - allows teachers to update student demonstration of knowledge as necessary
  • FIve Key Strategies of Formative Assessment (Leahy, Lyon, Thompson, & Wiliam, 1995):
    1. Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
    2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, activities, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning
    3. Providing feedback that move learning forward
    4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another
    5. Activating learners as owners of their learning
  • Grade book example (from Wiliam, 2011 Pg 126) that assesses student demonstration of course-related key ideas, competencies, skills, etc. as opposed to assignment scores:

  • The collecting of marks to fill up records is given greater priority than the analysis of pupi's work to discern learning needs; (Black & Wiliam, 2001)
  • The only teachers who think they are successful are those that have low expectations for their students. (Wiliam, 2011)
  • If your students are going home at the end of the day less tired than you are, the division of labour in your classroom requires some attention. (Wiliam, 2011)
  • As soon as students get a grade, the learning stops. Students should be given them as infrequently as possible. (Wiliam, 2011)
  • Driver's test example: the assessor, does not know--or care--that they failed the first, or previous attempts. If student drivers meet the standards on the test this time, they pass and receive their license. (O'Connor, 2002)
  • Marks and grades are meaningful when--and only when--they are based on quality assessment. (O'Connor, 2002)
  • Their is no point in providing students with feedback unless you allow time, in class, to work on the feedback to improve their work. (Wiliam, 2011)
Research Results:
  • Attention to the use of assessment to inform instruction, particularly at the classroom level, in many cases effectively doubled the speed of student learning." (Wiliam, 2011)
  • Students receiving constructive feedback, (consisting of specific comments on errors, suggestions on how to improve, and at least one positive remark) learned twice as fast as the control group (received scores only). (Elawar & Corno, 1985)
  • Students who received feedback as scores-only made no learning progress from one lesson to the next; students who were given only comments scored 30% higher on the second lesson than on the first. Giving scores alongside the comments completely washed out the beneficial effects of the comments: If teachers are providing careful diagnostic comments and then putting a score or a grade on the work, they are wasting their time.
  • Give the students just enough to get them unstuck--promotes better learning (Day & Cordon, 1993)
  • A 1994 study in Portugal that involved student self-assessment nearly doubled the rate of the self-assessing learners compared to an equally large control group.
Dylan Wiliam Interview:

Other Resources:
Exploring Alternate Assessments. Blog post on year end summative assessments. A great conversation starter for your next staff or department meeting.

What About Final Exams? Blog post discussing how and why to fill the assessment void left by defunct provincial exams. The reader's comments make for great reading, too!

Photo by Matthew C. Wright /

Homework: the Good, the Bad and the Unexpected

On Tuesday, January 23, 2013 the inaugural burnsVIEW Coffee House featured a discussion led by Alison Murray and Mandeep More on the topic of homework.

Discussion Highlights:

How do we deal with students who are overwhelmed?
  • Teach time management skills;
  • Recommend a maximum amount of homework/grade;
  • Increase teacher flexibility with regard to due dates and test dates;
  • Discuss due/test dates well in advance;
  • Avoid homework that is busy work;
  • Departments/teachers to distill down to "What do we want them to Learn?";
  • Fewer learning outcomes (as promoted in BC EdPlan) would help decrease homework
Purpose of Homework?
  • Recommended as April Pro-D topic
  • Only assign when repurposes/extends learning beyond what is done in classroom
Issues at Burnsview:
  • Parent expectation that homework is completed during Learning Assistance block
  • Excessive homework/assigning grades as completion perceived as possible classroom management tactic
  • How to encourage students to use class time effectively towards homework completion; discussed Ticket out the Door strategy
  • Different values and expectations of different cultures and Socioeconomic classes with regard to homework
  • Should homework completion be assessed for marks: Discussed that completion should be evaluated only as a work habit; i.e. homework completion is not a PLO;
Additional Research Findings:
  1. Grade 4s who did no homework scored the same as those that did 30 minutes/night. Those that did 45 minutes scored less. Those that completed 60/night minutes scored less again (Kohn, 2006)
  2. Grade 12s scored the same in testing when completing 15 minutes homework/night as those who completed 60 min/night (Kohn, 2006)
  3. TIMSS survey analysis shows that doing some homework is better than none, but doing a little better than doing a lot (Kohn, 2006)
  4. No evidence that homework helps support student increases in: responsibility, time management, perseverance, self discipline, or independence (Kohn, 2006)
  5. The more homework assigned, the less positive the attitude of the students (Cooper, 2001)
  6. Even when achievement gains have been found, they have been minimal, especially in comparison to the amount of work expended by teachers and students (Barber, 1986)
  7. Negative correlation found between grading homework and increased achievement (Baker & LeTendre, 2005)
Commonly Held Beliefs (Vatterott, 2011):
  • If I don't grade It, they wont do it; but many ungraded tasks are important: taking notes, group work, participation in discussions. Daniel Pink says we are "bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into engagement."
  • Hard work should be rewarded: Awarding marks for doing homework is like giving points for bringing classroom supplies
  • Help students who test poorly: when we count homework, mixing formative (practice) with demonstration (summative) we produce a murky picture of student achievement
Suggestions for assigning manageable, purposeful homework:
Homework: A New Vision


Homework Comedy Sketch:

Join the conversation online by posting a comment at the bottom of this page!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Discrepancy in Learning: Inside vs Outside the Classroom

Now, as perhaps never before, there exists a considerable discrepancy between the way young people learn on their own compared to the way they learn in school. If we assume that what one learns outside of school is more related to personal interest, motivation is likely a factor--anyone learning something they want to learn is likely to be more motivated and interested than someone who has to learn something--but it's not the main reason for the difference. The discrepancy exists because outside of school most of our students exploit the information sources available on the web while within the classroom, they do not.

Outside the classroom, young people know of and frequently and intuitively utilize a number of resources. When they want to know something, they Google it.  If they're unsure how to solve a math problem, they use Khan Academy. They use Twitter when they discover something of interest worth sharing and YouTube when hoping to learn a new skill. This is how many of us, both young and old, are learning, interacting, shopping, keeping up with acquaintances, and organizing these days.

However, in many cases the power of the digital age has not yet merged seamlessly with the classroom. Even though many classrooms have Wi-Fi access and many students have a device in their pocket more powerful than the computers of a only a few years ago, the use of web-enabled technology to support learning in a typical secondary school classroom remains low.

Rather than be incorporated into the learning routine of the classroom, smartphones and other devices are often banned because students are distracted by them. However, I fit firmly into the "if you can't beat them, join them" category; and believe that, instead of using these devices as a diversion from their lesson (by texting, updating Facebook, etc.), students should be using them to help support their learning.

There are two main reasons why student devices are not being used in classrooms. The first is, teachers tend to teach the way they've been taught. Therefore, without having learned in an environment that exploits information technology, teachers may not be sure how to incorporate it into their lessons. The second reason is, teachers are already very busy and few have the time or professional network available to them to create a completely new teaching and learning regimen. In order to teach in new ways and encourage students to learn differently, teachers will need professional development on how to incorporate technology and new classroom routines to follow.

Recently, thanks to a tweet by a colleague, I found an example of a teacher who has reduced and perhaps eliminated the discrepancy in learning between inside and outside the classroom.  Shelley Wright's Blog post The Flip: End of a Love Affair goes way beyond the title and covers much more than flipped vs unflipped classrooms. In the post, Shelley shares her classroom structure that combines inquiry, project based learning, student engagement, 21st century skills and technology. Shelley's classroom sounds like a place students would feel comfortable and familiar learning in.

I would encourage you to read and share Shelley's blog. Classroom structures such as hers combined with new curricula, that promises to support this new method of teaching and learning, could result in widespread changes to educational practice. Such changes will not only engage and challenge our students, they will also allow them to learn in a way that is familiar, accessible, and applicable to them.

Photo courtesy of Ambro at

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Kicking and Screaming

Image courtesy of Ian Kahn

Some years ago when I was a classroom teacher, my Vice-Principal told me that he desperately needed my help. A student named Matt Martin (name changed to protect the guilty) was in serious trouble. Matt had burned his bridges with nearly every other teacher in the school and was now on a reduced program and earning just enough credits to graduate. I was Matt’s last resort to earn a grade 11 science credit and graduate that year. It seemed Matt had some issues. He could be angry, abusive, and at times even aggressive.  And those were his good days.

The VP was persuasive and I finally (somewhat reluctantly) agreed to have Matt join my Biology class.  The tone of the class changed instantly. Matt was everything he was promised to be and sometimes more.  The VP had offered to allow Matt to use his office if he got angry or frustrated and couldn’t cope with a class. There was a day or two when I suggested Matt pursue that option. But Matt kept coming back, day after day, sometimes working fairly well and cooperatively and sometimes not, and the school year (slowly) passed by.

June arrived and to many people’s surprise Matt graduated. Those of us who had taught him breathed a sigh of relief.  September was looking brighter already.

A few years later, I was shopping at a local big box retailer when a smiling young man walked up to me with a warm greeting and a big handshake. I recognized him immediately: it was Matt. He seemed genuinely glad to see me. He was working at this store and had been for some time. He was sorry, he said, for being such a pain (not his exact words). He also told me how much he appreciated the efforts of me, his other teachers and the VP in trying so hard to keep him in school and allowing him to graduate. Wow, what a transition in that young man’s personality! 

That event stands out as one of the best moments of my teaching career. It reinforced my belief that the troubled, difficult students are the ones that need teachers and other positive role models the most. The “good” kids, the ones that all teachers enjoy having in their classes, probably need us a lot less. If it came down to it, the bright, well behaved students could probably do a reasonable job of teaching themselves.  Matt clearly demonstrated that the students we have to drag through the system kicking and screaming are the ones who, in the end, may appreciate and need us the most. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Determination of Terry Fox

I am a storyteller. Often, when dealing with a misbehaving child at my school, I'll subject the unfortunate student to one of my anecdotes. Although often met with a great deal of eye rolling, every once and awhile you'll strike a chord. One of my favorite stories involves Terry Fox. But let me fill you in on some background first. Terry and I both grew up in Port Coquitlam. Terry was a year older than me and we attended the same junior and senior secondary schools. At first, I mainly knew Terry from sports: my pathetic attempts to make basketball teams and my more successful attempts to make rugby squads. Terry, meanwhile, made both teams with ease due to his athletic ability and sheer determination.

It wasn't until later, after he had his surgery to remove his cancerous leg, that Terry and I got to know one another better. We were lab partners in a Kinesiology class together at SFU about a year after his surgery. Terry was still undergoing chemo treatments. Terry was a class act. When another student commented negatively on his wig, Terry said: "I've got cancer. This is only until my own grows back". But I'm digressing.

The story to tell today, from a short time later, defines him, inspires me, and is one I have shared with hundreds of my students: I had arranged to meet a friend at a local school to go for a run along the Poco Trail. Coincidentally, Terry was at the school at the same time. What I saw did not look good. Terry was trying to run on his artificial leg for the first time. He was literally taking one step and falling flat on his face. He would then get back up and do it again. A quick check indicated that, yes, he was okay. Some time later, upon returning from my run, Terry was still at it. Now, however, now he was managing to get in 2 strides before falling face down. I thought to myself: I'd have quit by now. He must really be hurting. Another quick check indicated that he was still okay (although I couldn't imagine how that could be) and that, yes, he was going to get this.

We know the rest of the story already. But there are a lot of things I don't know that I wish I did. For example: How many more laps of that track and falls did it take Terry to master a sustained run? And I can't imagine how long he must have trained and how much pain he must have endured in order to be able to complete a marathon worth of running on a daily basis for months on end. I suspect that he may have remained on that track that day for some time, because that was Terry: determination personified and an inspiration to all who either knew him or know of him.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Khan Academy and Altruism

Some years ago, while I was working for an educational software producer, a teacher/customer suggested a change that would improve the user interface and educational potential of our product. I agreed with the customer, and indicated that I had been advocating for that same change. A company Vice President who overheard the conversation later said, "Our product works well enough as is. It would cost too much to make that change and we don't have room in our product development cycle to do it." Another VP commented, "We're about profit, not altruism." This event was a sure indicator to me that I was in the wrong line of work: I was too much of a teacher not to be concerned about improving the educational value of our product. Within a year, I was back in the classroom.

However, occasionally, you will find something inspiring and truly altruistic. The Khan Academy ( is a splendid example. Salman Khan has produced over 2,000 tutorials on topics such as math, science, economics and civics that he provides for free on his website. He started small by producing tutorials for some cousins who were struggling a bit in school. Eventually he began posting the tutorials to YouTube and was surprised by how popular they were. 

A multi-degree holder from MIT and Harvard, Khan soon discovered that this type of teaching was his passion and formed his Khan Academy site. Interest in, and praise for his site has been remarkable. He quit his day job as an investment analyst and devoted himself full time to producing his tutorials. Many of these videos were produced in a small walk-in closet in his home—the only space he could find where he could work relatively uninterrupted. 

Thanks to some big infusions of cash from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, Khan now has an office and employees. His software engineers are creating a management system to advance students appropriately though his instructional videos. 

A recent article in Wired magazine describes Grade 5 students in California successfully using Khan Academy and their management interface to learn math—some of these students had progressed to doing university level math! Nothing really new about Khan's concept: its mastery-based drill and practice design has been around since the beginning of personal computing. However, Khan's material is very different from the typical over-produced, glitzy (and sometimes boring) educational products on the market. He adds a very human touch, sounding like an enthusiastic, but very patient teacher as he delivers his lessons using fairly low tech means. He's also very good at explaining complicated topics in a simple way. 

Khan regulars say that they like that you can review the sections you don't understand over and over until you get it—an often stated virtue of technology based instruction.   Interestingly, it was an improvement to this aspect of our products that my customer was requesting a decade before. 

Khan Academy is already impacting classroom structure as more tweets and blogs focus on flipping the school day—having students learn at home and practice at school—but more on that topic in a future post.

Khan wants to start his own school. It will be interesting to track the success of this endeavor if it is realized. However, as with any instructional approach, I worry that too much learning with Khan's videos may become tiresome. I believe his products' strength may lie in a back up role supporting existing classroom instruction. 

If you haven't already, I suggest you have a look at Khan Academy. More importantly, suggest it to your students, other educators, your own children and their friends. Based on their comments, Khan's users seem to adore him. His website's motto, "Learn almost anything for free," is about as altruistic as possible.