Archive for the ‘pedagogy’ Category

I attended a PD session today focusing on assessment for learning and assessment as learning.  It was in a format where our secondary teachers were split across two locations.  I have my own views of professional development, but I’m very thankful for our staff work to provide PD opportunities.  I know first hand how much time it takes, and also how challenging it can be to put forward a day that is helpful to as many people as possible.  It is a daunting task, and I am extremely grateful to have colleagues that continue to put in that effort.

I wanted to bring up a couple points.  The first is that in my opinion, large venues continue to be a problem for professional development days.  There are people who are critical of, and resistant  to the efforts and ideas expressed during the day.  John Maxwell writes about how 30% of a staff will resist efforts to initiate change.  Unfortunately, these people may not just resist changing themselves of their practice, but they actively (intentional or not,) detract others from making the most of the time during talk, session, or workshop.  I think a large venue, where voices carry,  exasperates this problem.  It was a shame today, when we were discussing formative assessment, that has been shown to double the speed of student learning.  I know the format of the day may not appeal to everyone, but how can you not try to improve your understanding of a research proven strategy to double the speed of student learning?  My message to myself is, “if you’re not doing this, you may be half as effective as other teachers.”  I’m glad to have been surrounded by others today that were eager to discuss these ideas and strategies to implement them.

Today, John Ryall from the Ontario Ministry of Education discussed how he could wish he could apologize to the students he taught during the first five years of his practice.  I know exactly how he feels and have expressed the same sentiment myself.  I found it affirming to know he feels this way as well.  I also think it demonstrates a willingness to be reflective and critical of one’s own growth.  I think that attitude may be vital to make the most of any PD opportunity.  It is a growth mindset that helps a person improve, rather than believe that a degree in education was all the experience needed to be a great teacher.




Today I read an opinion piece in the Toronto Star by secondary teacher Joe Killoran titled: Ontario’s grading guidelines get a big zero.  I wanted to take some time to respond to some of Joe’s comments as he covers a lot of ground in the article.  I have some disagreements with some of his views, and in the interest of professional discourse, I invite you to consider the following.

He begins by informing the reader that  according to the Ministry of Education (MoE) that “the evaluation of learning skills and work habits, apart from any that maybe included as part of a curriculum expectation in a subject or course, should not be considered in the determination of a student’s grades.” and clarifies that  “students may not receive poor grades for lateness, misbehaviour, skipping, late assignments, laziness or inability to work with others.

Killoran then makes an odd statement about these learning skills: “these learning skills may be “assessed” …, they may not be “evaluated” (the use of two synonyms to convey different meanings puzzles many teachers) as part of the number grade.”  First off, the fact that a teacher provides students a letter grade (E, G, S, N) is an evaluation of their learning skills, it just happens to be a letter instead of a number.   So I suppose some teachers do find the difference puzzling.  For the record, assessment is a process of gathering evidence to determine how students are progressing, and promote student learning through feedback.  Evaluation is the final comparison to the standard for which you are grading.  Assessment and evaluation are key components in teacher education (in my experience) as well as professional development.  I certainly don’t have Killoran’s experience with finding these differences puzzling.

Killoran goes on to say that the MoE is “handcuffing” teachers by not allowing them to include an evaluation of learning goals in a student’s final course grade.  He says that because of this, teacher’s cannot reward positive behaviors and deter negative behaviors.  He affirms that learning behaviors is an important part of being prepared for their “adult lives and careers.”  I would suggest that teachers who have difficulty in teaching student’s proper behavior without the use of “grades” do have issues.  The inclusion of learning goal grades won’t be a solution.  If “giving marks” was the answer, why do some students fail, dropout, or otherwise not achieve perfection.  The simple answer is that grades are not enough.  The second answer is a much longer one as to how research suggests our traditional grading system is not great at motivating students.  This isn’t to say that there should be no consequences for negative behavior, just that grades aren’t the answer.

Killoran continues with: “There are bright students who can cram for tests and submit late assignments who excel in our system, just as there are determined, hardworking students who are never rewarded for their dedication.”  I will agree that the system may need to change if this is the class in your classroom.  Assessments that reward the ability to cram and excel should be changed or eliminated.  Classroom work can be designed to reward hard work and deep understanding; teachers are doing this all the time.

Here’s where things get off the rails as Killoran discusses the MoE recommendation that students not deduct late marks or give work a mark oz zero:  “These “experts” (or “edu-babblers,” as they are called by many classroom teachers) argue that a missed assignment provides only “zero evidence” rather than “evidence of zero.” Imagine an employee attempting this Orwellian doublespeak at work, contending that their failure to repair a car, prepare a presentation, or analyze a quarterly report cannot be cause for punishment or dismissal because they did not even attempt the task and so cannot be said to have done it poorly.” I have a serious problem with this type of thinking from an educator.  First, these are students not employees.  Yes we are preparing them for their adult life – but they are not there yet.  Comparing education and the “real world” are not good comparisons.  Killoran wants to reward students who work hard, but I don’t want a heart surgeon who doesn’t know what he should, but she works hard and has a positive attitude, so she gets by.  You also don’t get to choose which career to compare to.  The majority of software developed goes over budget and is late.  The weatherperson on the news is wrong often yet somehow I see them on TV the next night.  Teachers get to call in sick and have someone come in and do their work for them.  Why not compare them to these aspects of careers in the “real world?”  The second problem with this attitude is that school is about helping young people at a critical stage in their development.  So the student whose parents are going through a divorce, or gets bullied at school, or is suffering with a yet un-diagnosed mental illness we should ignore and deduct marks all over the place.  I agree with Killoran that we want students to become resilient, however, that is not done by punishing students.  It is done through dialogue with your students, understanding their challenges, developing achievable goals with them and praising their success.

I would also say that deducting late marks at least creates an additional level of discontinuity in schools.  These are students competing for seats in Universities and Colleges.  If one teacher deducts marks and down the street one doesn’t, then we have a problem.  If the deduction is a standard (i.e. deduct 10% per day late) then the difference is one teacher gives three days for an assignment and another teacher gives five days for a similar assignment.

In my opinion Killoran also twists the MoE’s view on “most-recent and most-consistent” assessment for the sake of his article.  He states: “This means that a student who earned a 50 per cent for the first half of the year and a 90 per cent for the second half could be given a mark of 90, while a student who did the reverse could earn only a 50.”  Yes, this is true if there was some sort of forced algorithm that teacher’s use for this type of evaluation (PS. there isn’t.)  Teacher’s use professional development all the time.  If we’re talking about an isolated unit on Dinosaurs, most recent would capture the assessments towards the end of the unit and make them more influential on a grade.  It would not capture Mammals as most recent just because that unit comes after Dinosaurs.  So it depends on the course you are teaching as to how this applies.  Let’s look at Janet who goes into her summative activity and final exam with a 65%.  She have been steadily progressing from earlier in the year when she was failing.  She has been working diligently and earns a 90% on her end of year tasks.  Now mathematically that would bring her mark to a 73%. I would conjecture that a student who earns a 90% on the exam knows the material pretty well.  Should they perhaps be evaluated at a grade higher than the 73%?  I think if you value (and reward) hard work, persistence, and resilience, then yeah, we should consider some professional judgement on the final grade.  Should she get the 90%, well probably not since we also value (and reward) consistency.

Killoran adds another “real life” comparison: “Success or failure is determined by the sum total of one’s efforts in life, not simply how one has performed in the recent past. The sooner students learn this, the better off they will be.”  Well, students make mistakes.  Telling students they will forever be punished for a mistake is cruel and inaccurate.  Lots of people make mistakes (like 100% of them.)  So this doesn’t even apply to “real life.” We don’t fire a person at their first mistake.  Will there be consequences?  Yes, this is how students learn.  Again, mistakes are how students learn.  The research is supportive of this fact.  In my math class, I want students to try things, to risk being wrong, make a mistake, and then learn from it.  If students are simply wrist-slapped with grade deductions with no feedback or self reflection, then they are less likely to learn from these mistakes.  If a student performs poorly on a quiz and otherwise is performing exceptionally, at the end of the year can we not think of that as a bit of a hiccup?  Perhaps they were a bit sick, maybe they have a infant sister who was crying all night, maybe they just got dumped by their girlfriend.  That’s why we think about consistency.

Killoran finishes with “The ministry’s approach to grading is well-intentioned but it does students no favours. Skills like meeting deadlines, showing up on time, and working hard matter in the real world. They should matter in school too.”  A teacher should keep this in mind the next time a student is failing her class, or a lesson goes poorly, she returns tests a bit late, or she is less than at 100% because of a personal issue affecting her in some way, and when that happens she consider that he still earns 100% of her salary.  Yeah, these “real life” examples just don’t apply the way that Killoran asserts that they should.

Dry Erase Tables

Posted: June 18, 2012 in low-tech, pedagogy
Tags: , ,

I have used large pieces of whiteboard for student collaboration for a few years now. I have implemented this in both my math classes, as well as the occasional computer science class. I’m a huge fan of this low-tech device and students seem to enjoy it as well. The whiteboards also came at a time when I switched from having individual student desks to having students sit in groups of 3-4 at a table. The tables were more forced upon me due to facilities, but I have embraced them (the whiteboard use helped.)  Student collaboration is really enhanced when they work together in this way.

For a few years now, I have thought about using IdeaPaint on the surface of the entire tables. IdeaPaint is a paint-able product that can be applied to any smooth surface and transform it in to a dry erase surface. Essentially, using IdeaPaint, I was going to have whiteboard tables (although IdeaPaint also comes in a few other colours, including black.) I thought the idea was exciting for a math classroom, and among other things was going to use it to ramp up collaboration end reduce note-taking.  Take some time to dream up your own idea.

Now currently, my tables are awful.  They have wheels and you can’t sit on one side because they have power adapters built in. (They were, however, great for my Computer Engineering class when electricity comes in handy.)  Because of this, I started looking into making my own tables.  This is where IdeaPaint jumped back in to the picture.  If I was building new tables, why not build whiteboard tables?  IdeaPaint now comes in clear.  I thought this might have some interest to have some writing embedded beneath the clear IdeaPaint – like some key words for our school’s Four-Step Problem Solving Model.

I envisioned quarter circle tables each made out of a sheet of 8’x4′ plywood.  They would be able to accommodate four students along the long curve.  This is important because when students are collaborating they need to see things in the same orientation (equations, graphs, etc.)  It also means minimal movement when looking at a projector.



In a perfect world, I’d be able to find a local furniture or cabinet maker to help me build the tables (I can build them, however, it would be nice to have some more experience and better tools on my side.  An offer to help pay for them would be even better, so I guess the actual perfect world.)  Either way, the cost of the tables was not going to be too bad in my mind.  The problem arose when looking at the IdeaPaint.

The tables I plan on building will be quarter-circles, with the top built from an 8’x4′ sheet of plywood.  I figure this has about a 25 square foot surface area.  That means one can of IdeaPaint will finish two




Are IWBs Worth It?

Posted: March 31, 2009 in pedagogy, technology

Whether it’s a SMART, Prometheum, 3M, or any other, is an interactive white board (IWB) worth the great expense to your school?


Oh I wish it was that simple.  I am going to preface this article by divulging that I have a SMART Symposium in my classroom.  I also currently teach in a lab with a 1:1 student computer ratio.  But I have taught grade 9 math in a room with the standard SMART Board setup.

I find IWBs scary.  Not scary to use.  I am a huge gadget fan and I love new technology, and I am pretty adept at picking it up.  What scares me is when I hear phrases similar to “I don’t know how I could go back to teaching without a SMART board.”  I hope these people don’t actually think that.  I hope this is a case of people drinking the IWB Kool-Aid.  Some people are so caught up in the hype that they think their usefulness is beyond reproach.  But why shouldn’t they think this?  After all, when they changed the marker to blue the children’s eyes got brighter.  The teacher uses the screen shade and their pupils dilated; the spotlight tool had them drooling.  One kid passed out when the new magic wand pen was used to zoom in.

Sure student engagement is necessary for learning.  But what are you engaging them with?  If I juggle periodically in class, certainly that would grab their attention as well as a happy face pen.  Some will argue that the tools in the SMART software package are indispensable.  I am a little more accepting of that one.  I really like being able to use the clone tool I have used it in a variety of ways.  But many others, like the screen shade, are just repackaged legacy techniques, like placing a piece of paper on the overhead projector.  Either way, the software can be useful – even without the physical board.

In many cases it is the projector that is providing the magic.  It is what allows us to show videos, flash files, images and more.  The only thing I need to get up there fo,r is to get in the way and cast a shadow.  Using a board solidifies the teacher’s place at the front of the room.  My real fear is that for many teachers an IWB becomes a crutch.  It made walking easier, but now they can’t leave it to find new ways to run.  way I have seen (or viewed in a video) most teachers keep their “sage on the stage” delivery.  The dazzle of the IWB is what may keep students focused.  It seemed educators were really getting the message out to try and get away from the teacher at the front delivery model.  And as we started to move away, even just occasionally, we were shackled back in place by a shiny interactive ball and chain.

Offended yet?  Well if you are, perhaps theme truth there.  Are you still challenging yourself to be a better teacher?  And I mean better teacher, not put together an even more polished looking Notebook file.  A technology shift does not equate into a pedagogy shift.  It may lead to one, but only maybe.

What would I spend my money on?  Well, I have this pretty great piece of technology.  They are small enough to go on desks, but large enough for students to collaborate on.  So I can have a small group of students creating, editing, refining and more.  Unlike a IWB this tool is infinitely multi-touch, so there is almost no limit to how many students can use the device at once.  And I was able to get a class set for a fraction of the cost of a SMART Board.  I of course am referring to pieces of regular whiteboard I bought at Home Depot.  Oh, and markers I bought at Staples.  I certainly did not invent this method, and I wish I could remember how I learned it from so I could give them credit.

My over-arching message is the following: Let’s look for what we want to achieve, then find the tools for the job.  Or, figure out where we ant to go, then decide upon the vehicle.  And finally teaching is a tough gig.  Even if you have the best students, it is tough because you always have to ask yourself how you can improve.  If we expect our students to question and improve themselves, then we should do the same.  Happy questioning

In case you aren’t aware, Google offers schools free access to its Google Apps Suite.  This means your students could have access to Google Mail, Calendar, Chat, and Sites.  Well, they always could, but now it could be part of a domain you control.  For example, if you manage a domain for your school called, students could have email addresses like “” or “mr.smith@jameswoodshigh.”  The back end of the services run on Google’s servers.  I think this could add some streamlined collaboration between students if implemented and directed properly.


  1. Easy to manage
  2. Gives great collaboration tools
  3. Ability to control addresses.  Only an administrator can create an address
  4. Ability to allow only “” addresses to be received by other “” addresses
  5. Keeps information private, there are nor worries of students accidentally sharing their calendar
  6. Helps prevent cyber-bullying from anonymous addresses


  1. Board policy – As far as I can tell, my board states something along the lines that any information saved on, or sent from a board computer is owned by them.  As far as I can tell at my board there is no official policy against this
  2. Maintenance – while IT maintenance is limited because Google takes care of the work, someone still needs to be in charge of creating addresses and groups, and other minor maintenance

Your thoughts?  Please comment! I would appreciate some fresh perspective on this idea as I am thinking of taking it out for a test drive.  Maybe creating an address for each of the students in my class, or just for some students involved in collaborative extra-curricula rs like yearbook, newspaper, student council, etc.  I’ve already heard some mixed opinions from some colleagues.