Wayfinder Learning Lab

"Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong." Elkjaer.

Using personal GoogleSites for learning, assessment & feedback in #IBBio

Click to see an example of how the GoogleSite was set up.

This is reposted from my i-Biology.net blog. To comment, please go there.


Over the last two years, My IB Bio class have been keeping individual GoogleSites as records and reflections of their learning. Based on this experience and their feedback, I have tweaked the project to try to make it more effective as a learning tool.


With the bulk of our resources online (here on i-Biology.net, Slideshare and elsewhere), as well as a 1:1 laptop and GoogleApps environment, it doesn’t make much sense to be using too much paper. The aim of this project was to empower students to build skills and knowledge connected to the IB Biology course, whilst making their thinking visible to me as a teacher. Through this process, students are able to track their progress, stay on top of their grades and prepare at their own pace (especially if they are working ahead).

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How much should homework count?

I saw this on Twitter via @Mr_Abud, and it got me thinking: What is the role of homework in my class? Years ago I read Alfie Kohn’s (@AlfieKohn) Homework Myth and adjusted my practices (I think) accordingly. This tweet from Gary was timely as we’d just had a PD session on differentiation with Sandra Page, in which she played a video of Rick Wormeli (@RickWormeli) in one of his classes.

Here is Rick Wormeli on “How much should homework count?

There are more similar videos on the Stenhouse Publishers YouTube Channel.

Some key points from the video: 

  • Homework could be referred to as ‘practice’.
  • Homework, if given, should be differentiated.
  • Homework should be a ‘safe place’.
  • Homework is formative# in nature, so it is not appropriate to give a ‘homework’ report.
  • A student who aces assignments without doing homework still deserves the top grades for the criteria they are being assessed against. If they know it and can demonstrate this, why do they need to do the homework?
  • Weaving homework into a grade for an assignment or class is knowingly falsifying the grade.
  • Homework (incorporated into the grade) dilutes grade accuracy.


What is my philosophy? 

I don’t like homework for homework’s sake and try to make sure that what is assigned in my class is achievable, engaging and useful*. I ask students if they found a task worthwhile and how long it took**. There is a sign in my room that states “This is your office, these are your office hours,” with the understanding that we will do most of our work in the school day. 35 hours a week in school (plus extra-curriculars, plus travel) should be enough!

If a significant number of students are struggling to get their work up to standard – despite class and homework time – then that is more likely a reflection on me as their teacher.

  • Have I underestimated the time it would take?
  • Is there a problem in the instructions?
  • Is there, as can often be the case, a tech-related issue such as with Excel, blogs or other tools that needs to be remedied?

If so, we discuss it as a group and if needed re-set the deadline.

From cheezburger.com

There is still a need for (some? all?) students to work at home. This is often finishing an assignment, although some do come to work in my lab at lunch or after school. More recently ‘home-work’ has included reading resources, a video to watch or pre-question to prepare for class (a bit flippy). Pre-assessment of this can help in grouping for the lesson, or to see where the focus of our efforts needs to be. Homework is also consolidation – updating a GoogleSite page for IB Bio or completing a short formative Quia quiz – as a way of keeping track of where the student is with regard to the content, skill or concept.

The homework itself is checked but not graded (as in ‘counted for the final semester grade’). I do include scores for formative tasks such as Quia quizzes in PowerSchool as way of communicating with students (and their calendars), as well as admin and parents. We report ‘Learning Attitudes‘ in our school as descriptors separate from numerical achievement grades – keeping track of how self-directed a student is helps in writing this part of the report. I look for correlations between completion of formative ‘practice’ tasks and achievement in summative tasks when writing these Learning Attitudes comments.

If a student works well in class, is a good scientist, respects others, achieves highly in summative assessments but does not do the homework then the homework was probably no use to them. Why penalise?

Some students like to work at home, in their own space, making sense of the work in their own way. Others prefer to check out when they walk out. We try to make tasks engaging and differentiated, though we do need to meet the requirements of the criteria and prepare them well for IBDP or their terminal assessments. Some students get fed up of lab reports even if the lab itself was exciting – to what extent do they complete this at home or at school? How do we get the most ‘bang for our buck’ with instructional time?

Again, more questions than answers.


Some notes

*Emphasis on “try”. It doesn’t always work.

**Yup – some take ages on short tasks and a few really go to town on the biggies. Some students are true perfectionists or stressers and need coaching to stop burying themselves in work. They need to sleep! Others get so engaged in a project that they want to spend the time on it. I often find the learning resources teacher (SEN) a useful barometer for the students who need support and check up with him too.


#Check this out, too:


EDIT, Jun 10 2013

Here’s a vRant from Tom Stelling on Homework, and why he’ll give it but not grade it.

Also, here’s a interesting graphic based on reading Hattie’s Visible Learning. Overall, homework has an impact of d=0.29: pretty pointless. However, this is a mean impact; when the homework for elementary-aged students (d=0.15) is factored out, we are left with d=0.64 in secondary. This is an enhanced effect. Find out more about this with Tom Sherrington’s post: Great Teachers Give Great Homework.

Hattie Barometer: Homework. The notes underneath are for a #PYPChat session. There is no need to give homework in elementary, so why do it? As the father of a 6yo, I dread the day she comes home with a worksheet… unless she really wants to do it!


Differentiation through a ‘Readiness Filter’?

Carrying on from my last reflection on the differentiation workshops here this week…

Some subjects have a great freedom of curriculum and are natural fits for student-driven inquiry all the way through to MYP 5 (and beyond if they exist as part of our IBDP). In their cases, one might put readiness, interest and learning profile on an equal footing. The path a student takes through the subject could be very different to their peers (with different outcomes), based on the ways in which differentiation is implemented.

Others, such as Science (my own subject) and Maths, feed into quite prescriptive Diploma Programme courses. All paths lead to the same destination – the examination room and assessment of defined outcomes. Clearly there is minimal scope for differentiation of product or content, but plenty of room for differentiation of process. This led our discussions into whether we should be using readiness as a filter* for differentiation in our classes in MYP 4-5 and IBDP.

With clearly-defined command terms linked closely to assessment rubrics and eventually grades, should we (or could we) first use readiness to pitch lessons at the right level for each student and to ensure that they are making those incremental steps towards progress?

I would love to get to the point where I am using readiness and data in most planning decisions, with learning profile and interest to differentiate further within those levels. Flexible grouping tasks would be used to make sure the same kids aren’t always stuck with each other. Lofty ideals, eh?

I’ll let this diagram I cobbled together explain the rest…


*Thanks @LizDK for the word – it fits the idea perfectly!

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Differentiating… differently.

Long time no post! The school year is well underway and a ton of topics are on my mind, but things have been chugging along busily. Without the MA assignment to procrastinate, there’s been a little less motivation to blog, too! I’ll try to post a few shorter sets of thoughts based on our recent PD on Differentiation. 


Differentiation is a philosophy of teaching

That much I’ve had confirmed by an excellent few days’ PD with Sandra Page*, from ASCD, here at CA. It niggles at me that at times (or perhaps even often), I should be doing more to meet the individual learning needs of students. We all know that we should differentiate, and maybe we think we do so effectively, but it takes a real effort to want to make changes to the way we ‘teach’. Over the last few years I’ve been removing myself from the stage and trying to get the focus of learning on what the students can do and understand, and this opportunity to spend some time thinking about it and gathering more tools and practices has been welcome and invigorating.

What is DI? From DifferentiationCentral. Click to go there and find out more – it’s good stuff!

We took the time to focus on why we differentiate and how, thinking carefully about the general principles of differentiation (link to DifferentiationCentral overview). From a practical perspective there was a focus on differentiation of process by readiness, interest and learning profile.

As you can see from Tomlinson’s diagram of DI, it is a much more in-depth approach to planning and teaching. However by choosing to focus on process differentiation, everyone in the room, regardless of their own readiness level as a differentiator, was able to get something to take away and put into action immediately. A few colleagues and I had some great conversation as part of our Digital Bytes Friday yesterday on some of the practices she suggested and what tech tools exist to effect them in our 1-1 environment.

I realised early on that I’ve been using some of these techniques with some success for years, but my planning and implementation of really effective DI lessons (and units) could definitely do with being ‘beefed up’. I’ve taken a lot away from this experience, much of which will help me work towards my differentiation goal at school of better extending the more advanced students.

Some plans to put into action:

  • Make more effective use of the wealth of pre- and ongoing assessment data we generate in my classes to better inform DI lesson plans and the direction and style of lessons and units.
  • Establish more fluent routines to facilitate flexible grouping.
  • Find out more about Making Thinking Visible for ongoing formative assessment.
  • Use readiness as a filter for differentiation in the high-stakes classes, then develop DI lessons for different interest and learning profiles as they are appropriate.
  • Really clearly communicate KUD’s and make use of formative and ongoing assessment with various groups and students to check that we are making the right progress.
  • Develop and curate more resources for teachers to put to use in our connected, 1-1, international MYP environment.
  • Maybe even get some chat going on #MYPChat about differentiation!


The Penny Drops: Differentiated Instruction and the MYP Planner

Sandra emphasised the importance of a solid ‘Know Understand Do‘ (KUD) for a DI lesson plan, which immediately made me think of the link between the Significant Concept(s) in Stage 1 of a unit planner and their relationship with the Knowledge and Skills in Stage 2. Of course we plan lessons to work towards larger unit goals. A good DI lesson will therefore act as a stepping stone towards those learning goals, tailored to meet the needs of the students.

I quickly put together this diagram to communicate this relationship to colleagues.


Some useful Differentiation links:


*I can totally recommend her to lead PD on differentiation. We’re always wary as teachers of someone coming in to ‘tell us how to do our jobs’, but she was excellently prepared, clear, very knowledgable and supportive. This session was focused on MS/HS teachers and was tailored as such, with examples from across the disciplines. She worked with the school beforehand to discuss our needs and acted upon them. Here’s her page on LinkedIn.

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A pedagogy of personalised learning

A pedagogy of personalised learning, from education.gov.uk

A pedagogy of personalised learning, from education.gov.uk (pdf)

While reading about “Current issues in curriculum” today, I was pointed to this document from the UK government: Personalised Learning: A practical guide (pdf). I thought it might be worth sharing and of use to others. It’s long, but outlines some plans and strategies for personalised learning in schools.

How achievable is this in a setting with a rigid curriculum syllabus?

How fluid can the curriculum be made in order to really facilitate personalised learning ideals without sacrificing ‘standards’?

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“Stick ’em with the pointy end.” Curriculum Studies, Game of Thrones & the MYP

Quadriga, Mosaic del circ, Museu d'Història de la Ciutat, Girona

Quadriga, Mosaic del circ, Museu d’Història de la Ciutat, Girona, photo by Sebastià Giralt [flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/14485539@N00/3766584039%5D

What is Curriculum?

The image above was used in a stimulus for a set of activities to complete as part of the Bath MA in International Education. It immediately triggered imagery of Game of Thrones, my other holiday project. So much so, that when I was watching some of the episodes of season 1 last night, I couldn’t help but think about some of the characters: what were they learning, why and how? What was their Curriculum?

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Learning Science By Doing Science: A quick reflection on Student feedback to teachers

The results of teacher evaluations by students were sent out to teachers this week and I was generally pleased with the feedback I received. Students here have written fairly and with thought and obviously appreciate their education. As a teacher I am very fortunate to be able to read this feedback. The strengths I expected to see were reflected in student comments – I go all out to make class and active and engaging experience but also to give students plenty of class time to be successful in assignments (and give guidance and supporting resources), to differentiate as far as possible, to be organised and show that I care about each student.

I think this is one of my favourite comments:

“Mr. Taylor is always available for help. The one thing I really like is that I know he wants me to do the best I can do in this class. He slows things down when the class is falling behind and adjusts deadlines when it is necessary. He teaches in a way that allows us to be independent learners and try things for ourselves. I used to think that he wasn’t teaching/helping enough, but I then realized I wasn’t familiar with this type of learning freedom before. I like doing things independently, and when I’m struggling, he’s always there for support and help.”

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Areas of Interaction Workshop: A Quick Reflection

Tomorrow we’re back to work, after a long weekend for Golden Week, preceded by a long weekend in Singapore on a Category 3 Areas of Interaction workshop with a colleague. With a ton of work to shift and the faculty play coming up this week, I’d better reflect on the experience before it goes! This post is likely to read more stream-of-consciousness than structured, but treat it as a personal brain-dump, rather than the word from above.

First up, as a school new to the MYP (though I’ve done it before), there has been a lot for CA to adjust to over the last couple of years. Not least, is the concept of the Areas of Interaction. With the MYP heading for big improvements with the publication of the Next Chapter in 2014, my colleague and I were hoping for more solid information regarding the role of the AoI’s as they become the ‘Global Context’. It quickly became apparent that this information would not be forthcoming, though the workshop itself was a very useful experience. Although I had been to a couple of regional conferences as IBDP Co at Bandung, it has been six years since my last focused IB workshop, and the quality this time was excellent. Kudos must go to our leader, Gary Green, who was in a tricky position yet was able to lead us through three very useful days of workshops, discussions and tasks. He also introduced a number of useful routines from the Harvard’s Project Zero: ‘Making Learning Visible’ programme, which were a useful taster of some new starters or plenaries. He was very warm and approachable, knowledgable and happy for us to focus on what was important to our school.

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My Biggest Challenge: Striking the Balance

Is it possible to be too reflective?

Sleep is a challenge for teachers. Certainly for me. At any given time I have multiple streams running through my brain and it can be difficult to switch off. At times it is making sure all the grading and reporting is complete, at others prep and planning. Sometimes it is the interactions with students that get you thinking and at others it is the discussions with colleagues. Every day is different and challenging, and that’s why I love to teach, but wow it’s exhausting!

When I first started teaching about eight years ago, I thought to myself that it would get easier in a few years’ time; that I’d be a master of the content and that would be enough. The naïveté of the new teacher, assuming content mastery equals pedagogical success!

But it doesn’t get easier, the challenges become different. If I were happy to teach the same content in the same way under the assumption that all students were the same, then sure, life would be easy. I’ve always worked well with colleagues, had students enjoy my classes and achieved positive feedback. However, in this age of self-directed PD and access to other like-minded teachers online through Twitter and blogs, I find new ideas, perspectives and pedagogies on a regular basis. As the links, concepts and discussions build up, I question my own practice more critically, more frequently. And I sleep less.

I am in a fortunate position as a teacher (I think), to be able to teach Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Environmental Science at the High School Level, concurrently. To me, Science is more than a single subject. It is the process by which we make sense of the world and try to encourage students to make sense of global issues.

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