Harnessing technology to empower students and individualise learning

Harnessing technology to empower students and individualise learning

We’ve all heard it, right? You can’t effectively teach to the needs of a whole class in one go. Whole class lessons simply don’t work. So the solution is to teach in small groups. Tailor the lesson to suit their needs, keep a close eye on misconceptions, get more feedback from all students… everyone wins, right?

Well, everyone except for that student who didn’t quite get it and now has no access to support because you’re teaching another group. Oh, and that other student who just needs to hear the instructions once more. And of course there’s that other student who is happily completing his task… completely and obliviously wrong, but you’re none the wiser until you mark his work after school because you were working with another group. And that special event this week means that group B missed out on their lesson… Yeah, you might be getting the sense that small group work wasn’t cutting it for me or my students. I had to think differently. I needed a solution that would:

  • provide opportunity to teach to student’s needs
  • allow students to work at their pace – including repeating/reviewing lessons when needed
  • leave me free to support students in class to watch for misconceptions, troubleshoot and keep all learners on task.

Here’s what I’ve come up with… Notability + Google Drive + iPads = Brilliant.

The context for this is in a grade 4 math classroom, although it could be applied to almost any context. It’s worth noting that we are a 1:1 iPad classroom and all students have a Google Apps for Education email account, Notability and Google Drive installed on their iPads.

The workflow is:

  • Create the lesson – at the moment focused on division strategies – using Notability on my iPad. With this I am able to write on the screen and record my voice. Because I am able to create many lessons, I am able to keep them short and specific. I found that when I was working with small groups in class, it was so long between seeing each group that I then tried to teach too much to them in one go.
    • Once my lesson is finished, I am able to import PDF worksheets for immediate consolidation of the new task. Sometimes I’ll add in some worded problem or open ended type problems to extend their thinking and application. This is all within one note in Notability.
  • When I’m ready for students to take the lessons, I will share the note (in notability file format – not PDF – to include the voice recording) to a Google Drive folder that I have also shared with students in that group.
  • Students then open Notability on their iPads and import my notes/lessons. They are able to listen and watch the lesson, then proceed to their independent practice without interruption or need to setup their task.
  • Students work is automatically backed-up to Google Drive where I can view their progress if I didn’t see them in class. I can also import documents to my iPad, comment on them with voice and/or writing and then send it back to the student’s Drive folder. However I find the best form of feedback and check-in is in class. As students finish, I will check their work and move them to the next task – Mathletics tasks or teaching their new learning in Explain Everything.

Organising the lessons

Inside a lesson

Notability note layout

Within a week I’m already seeing huge benefits for  both students and myself:

  • Lessons now effectively become one on one as students plug in their headphones to focus on the lesson without distraction from other students,
  • Students can watch and re-watch the lessons to help them understand,
  • Students are taking on more responsibility for their learning,
  • Students are able to move at the pace that suits them – some are racing through lessons, while others are being more diligent to ensure they understand the lesson,
  • I am free during lessons to:
    • troubleshoot students’ queries
    • identify misconceptions or students who are off track
    • monitor students’ progress and move them to the next step of learning when they’re ready (in fact I’m finding I’m far more aware of students’ work and abilities compared with before)
    • less after school marking as it’s done in class (after school is now spent creating the new lessons)

R.I.P. handwriting…

The age of teaching handwriting is finished!

With the continual development of technology features such as predictive text, autocorrect and speech recognition, along with the rapidly developing field of mobile technology giving us access to these tools whenever we need to ‘write’, it’s safe to say that we no longer need to handwrite. Well, at least not in length. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that students in the younger years of schooling need to learn to form letters as they learn to read them. However, gone are the days of cursive lessons, pen licences and dotted thirds. I believe that it is likely that handwriting will become a type of art form in the same sense that calligraphy is for my generation. 

So what does this mean for teaching and learning? Well, for anyone who has been the victim of a grammatically correct, yet contextually wrong, predictive text, or a ‘sometimes hilarious, sometimes awkward and sometimes downright embarrassing’ autocorrect (see www.damnyouautocorrect.com for examples of any of these), the skills associated with proofreading and editing are going to be (and already are) essential for our students. 

Here are some tips that students should be learning and using to ensure they are able to communicate clearly and accurately whenever ‘writing’ using modern technology: 

  • learn to touch type – or at least learn to efficiently track what you are writing as you write it so that you can check the autocorrects and predictions that your computer is making as you go (just as mine has done 4 times in this sentence).
  • learn NOT to hit send, print, publish etc – give it time, think it through and most importantly read it over to consider your purpose and to check for errors. Then hit send, print, publish, etc.
  • understand your grammar – in order to know whether the autocorrect or prediction is correct, you need to know what is correct.
  • know spelling blends – English is an awful language to work with. It’s full of rules that apply most of the time, but not always. However, if you know what that tricky spelling might be, then chances are auto-correct or spell check with help you out.
  • use your tools – further to the above point, making use of dictionary or ‘look up’ tools built in to many browsers, word processors and some operating systems will allow you to check the meaning to ensure the word you have is correct.
  • READ IT OVER! – did I say this already? Yes, but it’s just so important that it needs to be said again.
Spending the time on teaching these skills and giving your students the chance to practice them, rather than on handwriting, will be time far better spent for both you and the students. 

Making the Most of gmail’s Priority Inbox

Recently I’ve been playing around with the filters and priority inbox in gmail to help keep myself organised.

I’m one of those people who struggles to remember the millions of small tasks, ideas and ‘to dos’ that occur throughout a day. I’ve tried many ways of managing various ‘to do’ lists such as ‘tasks’ in gmail, ‘reminders’ on my iPhone and iPad, and even setting up a checklist in Numbers on my iPad. Oh, and then there’s the sticky notes upon sticky notes on my desk. Unfortunately the problem is I never remember to check my ‘to do’ list.

For work, I always have my inbox open and so I started to think about how I could use this to remember to do things, without cluttering up my regular inbox. This is where the use of Priority Inbox combined with a filter work well in gmail.

setting up your filter in gmail

Setting up a filter in gmail

Firstly, I set up a filter to filter emails from myself and with the subject ‘to do’. To do this, click on the small down arrow in the search box at the top of the screen, fill in the relevant details, then select ‘Create filter with this search’.

Next, I need to tell the filter what to do with these emails. I want it to apply a label to the emails, so I have set up a label called To Do List.

The second step of this process is to set up your Priority Inbox so that you have a section that displays only emails with theTo Do tag attached to them. This keeps them separated from the rest of the mail, making it easier to see your To Dos and your other emails. To do this, click on the cog wheel in the top right corner, then Mail Settings. Then click on the Inbox tab. If you don’t have your priority inbox already turned on, you do this in the first section. In the second section you can use the Options links to choose what to display in each part of your Priority Inbox.

Priority Inbox setup

Priority Inbox setup

Now, whenever I need to remind myself to do something, I can send myself an email with To Do in the subject and it will automatically appear at the top of my Inbox, with all of my other mail displaying below.

I have also used this same process to filter out readings, blog posts, articles, etc that I want to follow up on. With these however, I need to apply the label (Readings) manually rather than using the filter.

Thanks to filters and Priority Inbox I am able to stay (a little) more organised all within one system.

iPads for Documenting Student Learning

With anecdotal evidence playing a key role in our early years classrooms, accurate and details notes and record keeping are vital in reporting learning progression back to parents. Our teachers in senior kindergarten are magnificent at keeping detailed observational and conference notes on the students and their learning but tend to spend many hours in keeping these notes. In an attempt to explore options for efficiency in their record keeping, some of the teachers will be using iPads after the break. Below is a list of some apps that I have recommended the teachers explore as possibilities as well as my initial thoughts on the pros and cons of each. If you know of others, please add your thoughts in the comments below.


Pages: allows you to input text, photos and/or video and easily format the page layout. Great to create a narrative of sorts for each of the students throughout the UOI. Photo and text documents are relatively easily transferable and printable. Downsides are mostly around the use of videos – the file becomes very large and not well transferable to other computers.

Keynote: similar features to Pages. The difference is in the organisation where each entry would be a new slide instead of having one continuous narrative. Same downsides as Pages.


Notes Proincludes text, video and photo but can’t be transferred from the iPads.

Evernote: includes text, photos and audio as clips within the document. Again, a nice way to create a narrative of each student throughout the unit. You will need a free account with www.evernote.com which the files are automatically synced to, so you can access them from any computer with internet access. Downsides include: can’t resize the photos, so they are quite large on the page, not as easily printed, app is a little ‘clunky’ to use.

Notability: can include text, photos, audio (as one attachment, rather than short clips throughout the document), and drawing/handwriting. Easy to use. Similar benefits to evernote and Pages. Photos can be resized and placed anywhere on the page. Can be emailed as a PDF with the sound recordings attached separately. Easy to print.


Creative Book Builder(CBB) & eBook Magic: both apps create an ePub book which can be viewed in iBooks on the iPad, iPhone, etc or on other ebook readers. CBB allows video, image and text but is a little more ‘clunky’ to use. eBook Magic is easier to use but doesn’t allow for video – text and photos only.

Boosting self-management and learning skills

Over the last month or so, I have been making an increased focus on developing skills within the students that allow them to take more control of, and be more aware of, their brain and learning. This is in response to the professional development day with John Josephs that we had at our school a while back as well as from reading the book ‘Why Do I Need A Teacher When I’ve Got Google?’ by Ian Gilbert (a book that I think every teacher and parent should read). I’d like to share some of the simple strategies that we’ve been focusing on:

  • Information Processing – In an attempt to have kids understand how their brain collects and stores information, we’ve taken a look at the Information Processing Model introduced by John Josephs. Basically, from the world of information, our brain chooses (or is forced to, or not to, by external influences) to move information through the following stages: sensory memory, immediate memory, working memory, long term memory. You can learn more by contacting http://www.focuseducation.com.au/.
  • Learning spaces in the classroom – I recently rearranged the classroom to allow for a number of different learning spaces. We have spaces that include independent, quiet areas, group tables, reading areas, whole class areas, etc. I share with the students the idea of making a choice of seating based on the requirements of the task at hand. If you need to focus by yourself, find a spot to do that. If you need to work with a partner, find a spot to do that. The kids are choosing well – for the most part. Unfortunately old habits die hard and some kids try to claim a stake on ‘their’ seating position 🙂 We’re working to remove this habit.
  • Behavioural Self Management – we recently set up a STAR corner. This stands for Stop, Think, Act, Reflect. Similar to a time-out corner in that it allows for removal from a situation that’s getting out of hand. BUT, completely different in that the students mostly take themselves to the corner (rather than me ‘telling them off’ and sending them there), it emphasises a focus on thinking about what wasn’t working and how to change it, and it promotes meta-cognitive thought which allows students to improve themselves meaning that hopefully the incidents become less frequent over time. In times when the whole class is a little ‘distracted’ I simply ask them to close their eyes and, without speaking or touching anyone else, count to 10 in their heads, or spell their name, or say the alphabet. Then I ask them to open their eyes when calm, focused and ready to move forward. I’m now seeing kids using this at their desks too – it’s great!

I hope some of these simple techniques can help you in your classroom or home too.

Let’s wipe the slate clean

Suppose for a moment that we could wipe the slate clean and start fresh with our students on Monday morning.

That means, no:

  • national/state curriculum
  • standardised testing
  • allocated classes
  • no schedule
  • no bells
  • no time restraints (other than the hours the kids are with you)

Where does that leave us? Well, we have 20-30 kids, 6.5 hours, a classroom, whatever resources and technology you have at hand and yourself, the teacher. What would you do to allow these kids to learn to their best?

Here’s one idea flowing around in my head at the moment. Picture this:

Students arrive to their school at 9am on Monday morning. They put their belongings away safely in their lockers and enter the classroom… if they want to. If they don’t, they head out to the soccer pitch or gather with their friends elsewhere, or perhaps they take out their book and find a nice tree to read under. It’s up to them because learning in this school is up to the students. They know that there is a teacher, or perhaps mentor is a better choice of word, who is there to guide them through whatever learning they may wish to or need to do.

So how do we ensure kids are moving forward? In this school, students would have a record of their learning based on a continuum of skills and knowledge. Students, no, learners, would meet with their mentors regularly to set short and long term learning goals based on their stage of learning as indicated and recorded on their continuums. Perhaps another aspect of learning focus is through units of inquiry that are directed and guided by the mentor. Once goals are set, students are responsible for making use of learning spaces to ensure that their goals are achieved, or at least worked towards. For those who do nothing, appropriate consequences would be laid out and followed through on. Perhaps limiting the freedom they have in their learning for a period of time.

The learning spaces I am referring to were first introduced to me by Stephanie Hamilton at the Apple Education Leadership Summit in Singapore 2011. The learning spaces are based around the following concepts: the campfire, the watering hole, the cave, the mountain top, and (my personal addition) the hiking trail. The way each is used is as such:

The Campfire

  • Based on the idea of when people used to gather around the campfire to listen to the knowledge and wisdom of       another person. Most of the time, this would be a scheduled lesson organised by the mentor, although it could be another learner. Students would be aware when a campfire session is occurring, and its focus, ahead of time so that they can plan ahead to attend or not.

The Watering Hole

  • The watering hole is based around the idea of the informal gathering of people that used to occur around, well, a watering hole. In the classroom context, this could be both informal and formal gatherings of learners and/or mentor to share learning, problems, ask questions, etc.

The Cave

  • The cave is not a place to escape to, but to find shelter and comfort for time of reflection. Learners need to use this time to set personal goals and reflect on learning. Some form of record keeping should take place as a result of reflections.

The Mountain Top

  • What do mountain climbers want to do when they reach the top? Shout at the top of their lungs for the world to hear. Well, the mountain top in the classroom is a place for learners to share their successes with other learners and the world.

The Hiking Trail

  • This is the journey of learning that occurs when students are pushing forward, by themselves or with others, in the quest to find new knowledge and skills and to understand and connect concepts. Access to technology, resources and knowledge are paramount at this point. Without a compass and map, learners get lost or are confronted by overwhelming forrest that cannot be navigated. Along with goal setting, the mentor’s job is crucial here. They act as the wise man waiting by the watering hole to guide the lost or weary hiker to the next part of their journey. When the mentor enters the learner’s path, the learning has entered the watering hole. When the mentor feels the learner is set to continue, the learner is free to re-enter their hiking trail to continue their journey.

While this all seems a little pie in the sky, I think it’s important to think like this sometimes in order to take even a few steps toward an ideal. I have taken a few tiny steps and seen huge results.

Field Based Learning

Many teachers, especially those in the edtech world, praise the idea of moving beyond the four walls of the classroom to strengthen learning. But how often do we actually do this? I’d like to review a week’s worth of field trips tied directly to our current unit of inquiry and discuss some of the learning that took place.

Firstly, the unit of inquiry was focusing on ecosystems and the connections present within them. It was hoped that the students were able to draw connections between things, living and non-living, within ecosystems that affect one another.

We began the week in a mangrove environment by simply exploring and journaling the features of it.Students were asked to open their senses and take in everything around them. We followed this with a great discussions on the many living and non-living things that make up the mangrove ecosystem… crabs, mudskippers, special looking trees, only a handful of plant types, water at times of the day, no water at others. Each of these aspects of course led to more discussion… why are there so few types of plants, why are the crabs on the trunks of the trees when the water is in, where does the water come from and go to???

Our next understanding was to learn about the water environment within and alongside the mangrove. How warm is the water, is it fresh or salt, what’s the pH level? So out came the scientific equipment for some meaningful testing.

“Hey look at that!” exclaims one student as she sees a crane flying into it’s nest perched high at the top of a tree. And then another student sees a budgerigar, escaped from its cage, but surviving well in the environment.

Day 1 down and the kids leave exhausted but excited for another day out tomorrow.  Students have gained a sense of the plant and animal life that exists within the mangrove ecosystem as well as some of the non-living features such as that it has salt water that rises and falls with the ocean’s tides.

Day 2 involves moving down to the beach to explore the concept of biodiversity. Students were asked to collect any non-living items that used to be living. Along with leaves, sticks and coconuts, comes a lot of shells. Shells of various varieties, shapes, sizes and from many different animals. Welcome to the idea of biodiversity. Amongst the class we must have had at least 2 dozen types of shells. So now it’s time for the kids to explore why on earth there would be so many types of shells in one place.

We finished this day by looking at yet another ecosystem that is a marvellous part of the tropics. A tree here can be an ecosystem all in itself with vines, plants, mosses, ants, birds, spiders and more all living within it. Again we looked at its features and aspects and tried to find the connections and relationships that existed within it.

Day 3 and 4 involved an in depth look at the rainforest ecosystem. After observing the huge variety of plant and animal life we made use of a variety of scientific equipment to learn about the soil type, temperature, moisture level, pH level, light level as well as the same water testing as we did at the mangrove, this time conducted in the stream within the rainforest. Another great discovery was made by one of the kids… a freshwater crab that the workers in the park were very interested to hear about. What a unique and exciting learning experience!

So over the 4 days, students were able to use real scientific equipment, within real environments to learn about the plant and animal life within the ecosystem as well as how non-living aspects such as light, water, soil, temperature, salinity, etc can all affect how the ecosystem functions. With this knowledge in hand, we set to task with the assessment for the unit. Students were in charge of working out through scientific testing, whether a crab from the mangrove and a crab and plant from the rainforest were able to be successfully moved to a third location. Off we set with our tools and knowledge to our third location. The students clearly had a strong understanding of the aspects that affected the various life forms we were testing for. They set to work testing the water for pH level, temperature and salinity levels. “I think the crab from the rainforest could live here!” exclaims on student. “Yeah, it’s freshwater here, just like in the rainforest” adds another. Next up was the testing of the soil and atmosphere for light levels, soil pH, temperature and moisture levels. And to add the icing to the cake, as we were walking back to the bus we discovered this wonderful creature… which we later found out was a Malayan Flying Lemur – which doesn’t actually fly and isn’t really a lemur!

Without a doubt, the big ideas and knowledge gained along the way will stick with these kids. Genuine learning with a genuine context makes all the difference!