Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Data - Weighing the pig doesn't make it fatter

This post is all about using data in helping to identify underperforming groups of, or individual learners. We, as with other schools, need to be more focussed on taking actions that will rescue our pupils from disappointing grades or failure rather than actually collecting and analysing data.

Why does data matter?

Most schools around the world now use data in some form or other,  recording information on learner attainment based against gender, ethnicity etc and, of course, some pre-indicator of attainment such as CAT (cognitive ability test) scores.

The value of this is that it allows teachers and heads of department to identify underperforming individuals or groups of pupils and take action.

However, due to the ease of exporting data from computer systems, it has been coming in ever large swathes to teachers and heads of department, often in a 'raw' format which is difficult to handle and needs specific spreadsheet training to investigate. Due to the varying backgrounds of staff and the varying consistency of teacher training, it is not fair to expect staff to be highly proficient in spreadsheet manipulation.

Despite this, most schools still supply teachers and heads of departments spreadsheets such as this and asked them to 'analyse' the data. Often this data may include some form of individual VA (value-added) score (a numeric value indicating how far below or above their predicted grade a learner is), which identifies learners who are under or over-performing, but the rest is left in the hands of the individuals to interpret and find patterns.

Everybody loves a value-added spreadsheet

Lastly, this data is often used as a kind of post-mortem analysis on what went wrong, rather than as an intervention. Whilst this is perfectly acceptable to use for investigations into improving curriculum delivery, it is not useful for helping learners right now.

How can we improve?

The UK has recently recognised this and has recently published an interesting report, Eliminating unnecessary workload associated with data management. The report highlights a range of issues for schools (especially with the UK recently ditching levels), but the most interesting points for our school are on the principles of effective data management, those being:

    • Am I clear on the purpose? Why is this data being collected, and how will it help improve the quality of provision?

      Two of our data collection cycles during the year are intended for us to track pupils in groups and as individuals to highlight underperformance. The collection of data allows us to take action before it is too late, and we have worked as a team to identify the best times, within the restrictions of our school calendar year,  to do this.

      As a side note, data should not be used for performance management of teachers because this:

    • Is this the most efficient process? Have the workload implications been properly considered and is there a less burdensome way to collect, enter, analyse, interpret, and present the information?

      The data collection systems we use (entering teacher marks onto engage) are the most efficient we have currently identified, but the analysis is currently not fit for purpose. We need a better way to allow equitable and consistent data discussions for different departments. Heads of larger departments need to consider class by class differences (relying on teachers to identify individual learner actions), whereas a smaller department might be more focussed on individual learners.
    • Is the data valid?

      There will probably always be some questions on the validity of CAT or other pre-indication data in schools, but CAT test data has been used for years and is linked to IQ tests, which have been in use since the start of the 20th Century. There are a number of educational psychologists and website articles supposedly 'debunking' IQ tests, but overwhelmingly, research points to IQ being heavily correlated to educational success, life expectancy and income, and that education is paramount in improving it.

      Despite this, we should always err on the side of caution with data (and therefore not use if for performance management of teachers) as IQ tests are only 'generally' accurate (i.e. there will always be learners that meet the criteria, for example, of a high performer that do not ever perform to the expected standards).

      In terms of the validity of the teacher entered data, this depends very much on how robust and accurate our teacher-designed assessments are.

So, why does this affect me?

Our school has developed an effective, 3 times a year, cycle of data collection but we are still a little too heavily focussed on the 'weighing of the pig', due to handing out 'data analysis' sheets and expecting staff to interrogate it for patterns, rather than focussing on the actions we need to take.

Therefore, a proposed new data conversation sheet has been devised. After each data collection cycle, this sheet will be distributed and should be used to inform discussions both within the department and with SLT on planned actions that will be taken, which may be in the form of:

  • A Head of Department or nominated individual supporting a staff member with a class
  • Improving differentiation for ELL / EAL learners
  • Individual actions such as contacting parents, support classes etc.
  • Longer term solutions such as changing curriculum delivery methods, assessments etc.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The (mostly) complete guide to everything you need to know about Google Classroom

We've been running Google Classroom at Nexus since its inception in August of 2014. The platform has moved on very well since that date and is now maturing into an effective system for creating assignments, giving feedback and assessment.

It is important to ensure that the whole community is using this consistently so that learners understand where to go to find work and assignment information, even if they are not creating or submitting work electronically.

To help with this approach, here are the current best practice guidelines for using Google Classroom.

In your classroom

  • Get your learners in the class. You can do this by inviting them by email or by sending out the code. Check that they have joined - this is a rather annoying administrative task, but some may slip under the radar if not.
  • Think carefully about how many assignments you want to set. A 6-week assignment could be easily delivered as one assignment with careful planning, or chunked into separate assignments if this works better.
  • Giving each student a copy of documents or templates to fill in is great if you want to be able to view their work straight away (or if they need a writing grid).  You can then dip into the Google Classroom folder (stored in your drive) at any time to check how they are doing.)

    If you expect your learners to upload a piece work (such as a Word document), you won't be able to do this.
  • Break assignments into topics. For example, they can easily be broken into 'class work' and 'homework' so that both you and your learners can find them more easily
Use topics to organise the stream

  • Ask a question. Using the Create question feature on Google Classroom allows you to ask questions than can be explored outside of the classroom. This is great for having discussions, giving time for learners to really think about their responses and engage in rich discussions.
  • Integrate or sync external Apps with classroom. Lots of tools that you use such as Quizlet, Edpuzzle and Duolingo now have a 'share with classroom' feature. Go on the site, create your resource and then click 'share with classroom' will create a new assignment in one of your classes
  • Set assignments for all of your classes quickly and easily by using the 'Post in' feature, which lets you set an assignment for multiple classes at once.
Use post in for setting work to multiple classes at once
  • Another time saver - reuse old assignments by clicking the reuse assignment option. This lets you reuse assignments even from old (archived) classes over and over again.
  • Add resources that learners need to reference through the year, such as reading lists, rubrics and project files to the class resource page, reducing clutter in your assignments.
  • If you own a tablet AND a stylus, get the iOS / Android classroom app and annotate their work with notes.

Teaching collaboratively

Just like collaborative teaching has its challenges (and rewards), using technology for collaboration can really make a difference, but needs to be done so that technology supports what you are trying to do.

  • Creating a single class for say, the whole of year 7 English, in Google Classroom is not advisable. It is hard to manage 'your learners', hard to find 'your learners' and difficult to to ensure all learners have been assigned to the class.

    Instead, create individual classes linked to the register (e.g. 7N, 7E, 7X) or group your learners into different classes. Then, invite all of the teachers in your class to be teachers in your Google classroom.

  • Use 'post in' to set assignments for all of your classes. Take turns to do this as part of your planning, and use a colleague to check that all resources are attached.
  • Try giving comments and feedback during the lesson. Have a member of the collaborative team assessing work / giving feedback as the learners are creating it. This can only be done if you have issued a document for the learners to fill in as part of your assignment.

Last but not least

Don't assume that your learners know how to use Google Classroom. Show them how to submit an assignment. Show them what you expect for work submission and what you expect them to do when feedback is given . Show them the calendar so that they can see work due.

If you are not comfortable with doing this, book a technology integrator.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Digital distraction

One of the biggest current discussion points in educational technology is the impact that technology is having on our ability to focus, more commonly know as digital distraction.

Last year I put together a keynote presentation for the ISKL iPad conference , based on some interesting research I had been finding on the impact of technology on our ability to focus. The video can be viewed below:

On reflection, some of the research in this video, taken from a range of websites on distraction and also a book called "The Organised Mind: thinking straight in the age of information overload" by Daniel Levitin, may be a little questionable, but the fundamental, inarguable fact is that children (and adults) are distracted by technology.

How distracted are our learners?

A survey of our own learners (Year 5 to 13) from 2015, which we undertake every year as part of the International Research collaborative backs this up (the data below is from 2015, but this years data shows a similar picture).

The statistics are based on results where Agree or Strongly Agree is the given response:

And Nexus is not unique in reporting these figures on distraction. These results are reflected across all of the schools (more than 20) that have taken part in this survey.

What about teachers?

From our IRC survey this year and last, our teaching staff are also finding that they are distracted by technology.

45% believe technology more easily distracts me

Following on from my post last week, this might be emails from other teachers, notifications, SMS messages or pop-ups from chat sites. It may also just be the simple temptation to watch a cat video.

So, what can we do?

Now, before we decide to go ahead and ban technology outright, there are some important other statistics (amongst others) that our learners shared:

60% believe technology has had a positive impact on how much they learn

63% believe technology makes them more interested in the subjects

77% believe technology makes it easier to keep track of assignments

Lastly, forgetting all of the above, we are preparing our learners to work, live, play and communicate in a world with technology, so it might not be the best idea to stop them from using it. Unless they are planning moving to the northeastern United States to join a religious group.


Unfortunately for teachers, the attention span of the average child can range from 2 to a surprisingly low 20 minutes (but can be much longer when they are doing something intrinsically motivating), so we have to be mindful of things that we might do that can cause our learners to be distracted.

A survey by UWCSEA on a small number of students identified the following things that teachers did that made them more likely to be distracted:

  • Researching online (I'm putting together a post on this soon) 
  • Long lectures / long presentations / no interaction 
  • Allowing us to use earphones 
  • Independent work on long writing tasks 
  • When the subject isn’t engaging 

There is also the difficult task of pitching our work correctly. If we want to encourage our learners to be in a state of "Flow" and not be distracted, we mustn't set the work to be too hard or too easy.

Managing distraction

So, in the 1:1 classroom, there are things that we as teachers can do with technology that will help our learners (and ourselves) to avoid being distracted.

  • Turn off notifications on devices. This is the number 1 reason that we get distracted. Do we really, really need our devices to tell us when we have an email?
  • Always close / turn off / put away devices for class discussions 
  • Don't send emails in lessons. 
  • Set a time for checking emails for yourself or your learners 
  • Get learners to work for blocks of time; Use a timer - there are lots of great apps, or you can use an online one such as Google timer
  • Sit learners where you can see their screen
  • Break the lesson up with different activities, even for older learners who are doing independent research

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The endless battle against email

At Nexus, we have a problem. That problem is email. Last week, our staff conspired to send upwards of 10000 emails. Yes. 10000 emails sent in one week. But, the headline figure of this, is the emails received

We use group emails such as all_teacher and secondary_teacher. The total for this was 94626 emails. Yes, you read that right.

Ninety four thousand six hundred and twenty six emails. In a week.

Understandably, many of those emails may have been auto-generated by apps such as Google Docs and Google Classroom invites, but the rest were generated by people

Now, before we get apoplectic with rage about the senders of these mails, bear in mind that we are all responsible for sending wasteful emails at times. Last week, we had emails about social events, missing equipment, new learners, meetings, reminders about meetings, clarification of reminders about meetings, surveys, emails about emails and emails about juggling scarves.

Who lost the scarves? And what is a juggling scarf anyway?

Many websites suggest that the average worker now spends upwards of 30 minutes a day simply reading emails. This does not account for the time we spend carefully writing them so that people get our message. However, if this article is anything to go by, our audience may only be reading 28% of the words we send to them. 

In fact, you've probably stopped reading already.

There are lots of things we find annoying about emails, from the endless discussion about a meeting that we could have simply scheduled on a calendar, to the frustrating use of reply_all. 

Conversely, there are plenty of times when we have meetings that could have been delivered by email. 

So, what can we do to try to address this?

We all need to think carefully about our use of email and the impact it is having. This is a list of things we can all try to do to reduce the daily avalanche.
  1. Do not send emails when you are teaching. Chances are other people will be too, and you should be teaching.
  2. Think before sending any email. A carefully crafted email can take minutes to construct, but evidence suggests that people very rarely read the full detail - it is often frustrating when colleagues misconstrue what we think is a clear message.
    Can you share this information in another way?
  3. Meet face to face. Humans are social creatures; talking to people is generally a pleasant experience and your message will be clearly delivered. On top of that, sitting too much is bad for you.
  4. Do not expect a reply to your email in less than 24 hours if on a weekday*
  5. If you send an email in the evening, do not expect a reply until the working day begins*
  6. If you send an email at the weekend, do not expect a reply until the working week begins*
  7. Email should not be used for discussion or decision making. It is for information only. If you are in a discussion that you would rather not be in, watch this 50 second video
  8. Try to never, ever use reply_all.
  9. Science says that those pop-ups on your screen and vibrating phone messages are a major distraction. Turn them off.
  10. For team discussions and chat, why not try Slack? It's a web-based interface for teams to communicate and chat about topics and projects to keep everyone in the loop.
* Email is not for emergencies. If you really need someone to do something, try a phone call.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Information retrieval in the Digital Age

I've just presented at the excellent +DEEP Learning conference at Nexus International School, Putrajaya on internet searching and why it is an such an important skill. This blogpost is a summary of the presentation. As usual, most of my ideas are taken from other places, such as Google Search Education, Research on Transactive memory and books such as The Tipping Point and Daniel J. Levitin's The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Evidence suggests that in the ‘information age’ that we now live in, we now have much more information bombarded at us than ever before - more than 5 times as much per day than in 1986. This means that children, when faced with the internet, have a lot of difficult choices to make when finding information online.

In this information age, with the increasingly ubiquitous nature of the internet and our always connected devices, it is very easy to assume that the amount of information constantly at our fingertips is dumbing-down our children. In fact, research indicates that when students expect to have access to information in the future (such as by allowing access to a search engine such as Google), they remember it less well. Later on, we will see the flipside of this and why it is not such an issue. However, the question many people might ask is, have humans always had access to larger amounts of information than we can actually store? The short answer is yes - through transactive memory.

Transactive memory

The term ‘transactive memory’ was proposed by Daniel Wegner in 1985. The basic principle of this is that our memory is a mixture of the knowledge we have acquired over time combined with ‘metamemory’ that contains information about the knowledge of different people we are acquainted with. A good example of this is In Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point”, where he discusses how families have very pronounced memory sharing - for example, he talks about how the 13-year old might be the family expert on the computer. How many of you rely on your children to be your tech-experts?

Therefore, our memory often works on remembering who to see about fixing the computer - how to find the information we need - rather than on how to fix the computer. In the case of books, think about the time when you cannot recall a piece of information - often you remember the book or place you read it in and can then go and look for it. Increasing amounts of research suggest that the advent of search engines have placed a new external transactive memory source at our fingertips. We now have the knowledge of hundreds and thousands of people at our disposal. This is where the flipside comes back into play - the students who are shown to remember facts less well when presented with a search engine are much more likely to know where to find it again.

Why does this matter?

It turns out that our brain is generally poor at remembering things, and to get around this we developed the ability to write to record information. According to Daniel J Levitin, in his book “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload”, the reason writing was originally developed back in 5000 BC was “not for art, literature or love...but for business - all literature could be said to originate from sales receipts”. This enabled the traders back in those times to keep track of more sales, have more customers and therefore make more money. As an example of this, think about that shopping trip you make every week - how well might you do without that shopping list?

As our society has developed, we have produced more and more information and we have needed to develop information retrieval strategies to help us find it. This has led, over time, to indexes in books and systems to find books in our libraries: things we take for granted. However, with the advent of the internet, we have had to develop an ability to find information using text-based searches.

How can we help our children to be effective at information retrieval?

According to Sugatra Mitra, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, one of the three fundamental skills of his curriculum for the future is “information search and retrieval skills”. Internet searching and having access to search engines is enough to allow students to develop rudimentary search and retrieval skills, but there is much more that can be done to help them.

At Nexus International School, Putrajaya, we have a few ground rules that we try to follow with all of our learners when finding information online or accessing electronic materials:
  • Don’t start too early - young children struggle to comprehend huge amounts of information that search engines provide them. Children as young as 8 or 9 can be ready to search, but with a lot of supervision. Younger children can be given web quests where they can try and find information on some pre-selected websites. 
  • Know what they are likely to find. Our teachers are encouraged to ensure that they have done searches themselves. If they haven’t been able to find an answer, why would their learners? 
  • Never trust resources. Many online educational resources and websites targeted at children are simply aimed too high in terms of language. We try to encourage our teachers to check the reading age of all of their resources using sites such as

  • Teach learners them how to find or employ effective keywords or ‘parse’. This is a means to pick out the effective terms from a question they need an answer to. 
  • Show them what the search results mean. Google searches can give useful hints as to how useful a site will be in the title, url and snippets given in each result. 
  • Tell them it’s ok to try again. Research of internet searching in adults suggests that 67% of internet traffic goes to the first 3 hits in a search. If adults don’t look to the next page, why should the kids? 
  • Use different strategies. Other research suggests that kids simply dislike searching the net (i.e. using keywords and then selecting appropriate responses) but quite like browsing (i.e. reading about a topic and then exploring different aspects of it, or finding out related information). Google is developing a ‘Knowledge Graph’ search engine which gives contextual information when we search, which relates to how our brain stores information. If you do a search for Petronas Towers in Google, you will now receive an information card, which also gives contextually linked information about other locations of interest such as tourist sites (Batu Caves, Mt. Kinabalu) and other tall buildings (e.g Burj Khalifa). 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A simple sign-out system using Google Forms

Google forms have a wide range of applications in schools as documented previously in my blog, but in a wide range of other places. Much of the use of Google forms is very powerful, particularly when used with scripts such as formMule, Autocrat etc.

However, I was looking at creating a sign-out system for boarding students recently, and stumbled on a very simple way to record student sign-outs using Google forms.

What you need

All students need to have a Google account and have access to a mobile device (either their own or school provided) and wifi or cellular data. There are ways around them not having a device, but it works best if we use their Google account details.

You will also need a spreadsheet list of usernames matched to the student name.

The form

All the form needs is a submit button - no questions at all. It also needs to ensure that they are signed in to your domain and their sign-in details are recorded.

The student must be signed in and their username must be collected

The completed form will look like this:

The spreadsheet

The spreadsheet that pulls the form data will need an additional sheet to analyse the responses. The only thing initially needed on this sheet is a list of students and their usernames.

The function

Next to the student name column is the formula that calculates the number of times the username appears and registers whether a student is in or out. This formula can appear on a different sheet if needed. The formula is relatively simple. 

It is a formula that uses the IF function,  isodd function in combination with countif to find the number of times the username appears in the list. The function looks like this:

To clarify, if there are:

  • No entries (i.e. the form has never been filled in), the value will be even and display "In"
  • 1 entry - odd - displays "Out"
  • 2 entries - hopefully you get it by now!
The system in action with added timestamp

For those interested in the system, a copy of the spreadsheet is here (view only), including the timestamp function/formula shown in the example above.

Extra stuff

Once this is running, you can add extra features such as:

  1. Use conditional formatting to colour code in/out
  2. Format the sheet for display on an LCD display etc.
  3. Using a function to timestamp the sign-in / sign-out time of the student (this data can be pulled from the Form responses sheet) - see the link above
  4. Add location information (an additional layer of complexity that will require questions on the form) - i.e. allow user to choose a place that they are going from a dropdown.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The road towards game-based learning

We have started looking into the idea of 'gamification' of learning in the technology department at Nexus. Although some staff have already / are already exploring the idea of this in individual lessons, it is one of our roles in to identify ways to evaluate and embed new approaches to learning for the whole school.

Gamification vs. Game-based learning

Amazingly, there is a difference, although it would be easy to assume that they were in fact the same thing. I've explained it below, but this site probably does a better job. Maybe this is just semantics, but I kind of feel that they are slightly different, although leading to the same thing - more engaged learners.

Game-based learning

The ubiquitous Minecraft

Basically, game-based learning is the idea of using a computer game or app to learn something. There is some interesting research by Ruben Puentedura on his Hipassus blog, who gives the background to and classifies good examples of the use of game-based learning. He also identifies why game-based learning can be very effective as a way of learning. The most prevalent example of game-based learning currently happening in schools is the use of Minecraft, but some very interesting games, both online and for iOS and Android are starting to appear, being specifically written for education.

Gamification of learning

Gamification of learning is in taking the elements of games (whether they be computer-based or otherwise) and building them into lessons or sequences of lessons. Whilst game-based learning might require the investigation of a piece of software, such as Minecraft, to use to deliver content, gamification requires the building of lesson content around or within the realms of a game. Often, but not always, this can involve the use of technology - often as a way to make the gamified unit of work run more smoothly, or perhaps be more interesting.

So, how do we gamify a unit of work?

Oh, not more QR codes...

It is very easy to make the assumption that to make a lesson more interesting we can add in some technology. Perhaps teachers make the mistake of using a new technology without thinking of the implications, whether that be 'planning in' or 'planning out' the use of technology so it is not bolted on, or using something without considering the impact on learning.  This is where the support of good technology integrators or coaches come in.

When looking at technology use there are two main considerations that a teacher or technology integrator should make:
  • Will it save time?
  • Will it make the kids more engaged / improve learning?

So, back to the QR codes. When used effectively in a sequence of learning that changes the way kids learn a topic, makes them more engaged and improves attainment, then perhaps QR codes have a place. But, definitely don't use them to display a question that could have been written on paper that then takes 30 seconds to load (assuming the kid manages the shot first time), whilst 10 other kids wait in line, eagerly holding their iPads. And don't laminate them. Or make them too small.

A taste of Gamification

We started last year with adding a small element to a unit of work on space - an IPC topic called 'Mission to Mars' for Year 5 (Grade 4). Part of the 'entry point' to the topic was the learners application to become an astronaut. We decided to gamify the start by adding in some interesting elements of gamification. They were:

Setting a series of challenges

Learners attempting to crack the Code

The entry point consisted of a number of small challenges - a few dexterity tests, a quiz, code cracking activity and an application form to become an astronaut.

Moving on

Learners could only move onto the next challenge when they had completed the first. Whilst the tasks were, in some cases rather simple, this meant that there was an element of motivation to get to the next stage.


Mail merge template for the successful astronauts

Whilst there is much negative research on the value of extrinsic rewards, it was felt that in the context of the game, a simple document signifying their success on applying to become an astronaut was a suitable part of the game.

How it worked

Without going into endless detail, the game worked on the basis of a few tests, with learners filling in their answers into Google forms. Correct answers would receive emails with codes to access the next level or further instructions, using Functions and Scripts on Google sheets. At the end, they would receive an email with their certificate. All of this was stored on a simple Google site.

Was it easy to set up?

No. And this was just one lesson. Setting up a gamified work takes time.

Next steps?

After attending the 21st Century learning conference in Hong Kong recently, we saw a very interesting presentation on gamification from Rob Newberry of Chatsworth International School, Singapore. His presentation confirmed what I think I new to some extent already - that gamification can be very rewarding for learners, can allow "development of previously unexplored student capabilities" (that's Ruben again), but lastly, that it can take an age to plan. It was also great to see an extended overview of a gamified sequence of learning.

What's also good about conferences like this is seeing other people's success and failures and also gives inspiration (and sometimes a reminder) to get into delivering these ideas to your students. As a result, we have now decided to look at creating an entire 6-7 week unit for our year 7 learners, to deliver some IT skills in an interesting and challenging way.