Course 5 Final Project – Going Formative

OMA – Oh My Alligators! 

Flickr photo by Extra Zebra shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.
Flickr photo by Extra Zebra shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

These past 12 weeks have been so hectic that it at times felt as if I were working in a pool full of alligators. Without going into a lot of detail, there is a very true and useful saying about this sort of work existence worth mentioning. The demands of a new school year, daily teaching activities, after school club commitments, and COETAIL course requirements have made for some very busy days and nights. Those familiar with the rigors of classroom teaching know that sometimes you get so caught up in the forward energy of the school year that sometimes you do things without remembering the reasons why. In moments like these you have to find a quiet moment to pause and reflect about: where you started, where you are, and where you want to go. I feel like I am at that place right now with COETAIL as I begin to put closure to my final course project and program.

An Idea is Born

I started to develop the idea of using digital exit tickets in my classroom last spring. I first wrote about it in a post titled Making Withdraws from the Bank of Reflection. My goal was to successfully implement a system of using digital exit tickets, a.k.a. formative assessments, as a means improving instruction and student learning. My rationale for pursuing this goal included capitalizing on the teaching and learning power of formative assessments and my never ending search for the silver bullet method of working with a manageable system of exit tickets in the classroom. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics identifies the role and benefits of formative assessments as follows:

“Formative assessment is an essential process that supports students in developing the reasoning and sense-making skills that they need to reach specific learning targets and move toward mastery of mathematical practices, such as those set out in the Common Core State Standards. It serves to inform both the teacher and the learner, enabling the teacher to change what he or she is doing and the student to understand where he or she is in relation to the learning goal.”

“Formative assessment produces greater increases in student achievement and is cheaper than other efforts to boost achievement, including reducing class sizes and increasing teachers’ content knowledge.”


I had to choose from a long list of online formative assessment options, and in the end decided to use Formative as my digital tool of choice. It offered: a stable and user friendly operating platform, options to globally share assessments, and an efficient means of collecting and analyzing assessment data. Additionally, unlike any other free product of its kind, I can remotely observe my students digitally “ink” their solutions in real-time.

ISTE Standards

Applicable ISTE Standards for Students and Teachers targeted during my project work were:

  • Students use technology to seek feedback that informs and improves their practice and to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways.
  • Teachers design, develop, and evaluate authentic learning experiences and assessments incorporating contemporary tools and resources to maximize content learning in context and to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitutdes identified in the standards.

A Glimpse into the Mathematical Mind of a Student 

Flickr photo by jetheriot shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

When I checked back in with my COETAIL cohort in early September, I was already well underway in implementing my final project plans. My efforts over the summer researching and experimenting with Formative by trial and error using self-made fictitious student accounts reaped huge benefits at the start of the school year. Less a few small start up challenges, after a couple of brief introductory lessons and some practice opportunities, my students were comfortably accessing, completing, and submitting online formative assessments. Much like peering into the working minds of my students, it is the closest that I have ever come in 20 years of teaching to being able to instantaneously observe, analyze, and compare an entire class of students’ thinking and problem solving strategies.

The Chicken or the Egg? 

CC0 Public Domain Free for commercial use No attribution required
CC0 Public Domain

Throughout my work of implementing digital exit tickets, I did have an opportunity to share my work with members of our school’s math department. With one of my colleagues in particular, it became an exercise in discussing the sacred question, “which came first – the chicken or the egg?” Our grade 6 math teachers decided to use Formative as a means of assessing student learning and teaching effectiveness at the start of each class. They implemented a system where students completed a short homework-based formative assessment during the first five minutes of class. This scheme allowed students time to practice and refine their own understanding prior to assessing mastery of learning content or teaching effectiveness.

Meanwhile in grade 7, my teaching colleague and I decided to focus on more immediate feedback in the form of digital exit tickets. At the end of each 45-minute learning segment, students answered two to three questions that assessed mastery of the day’s
learning targets. While most stuffyexit questions were written as multiple choice like those on the right, some were occasionally formatted as free response so that student could use Formative’s online inking function. The benefit is that you can observe the thinking processes of an entire class, albeit sometimes sluggish, in real-time as they work through a given set of exit questions. To better understand this concept, open the Formative home screen and look to the right under the login area. Below is a screen capture of my own students’ online inking work on a single exit question. Teachers can only view students’ work one question at a time using this format.

Formative summary view of a “show your work” formatted question where students ink solutions online while teacher observes from Formative dashboard in real-time.

The drawback to the format above is that you can’t as readily assess content mastery or make comparisons within a single class of students or across multiple classrooms and questions of the same subject. The left most image below is from one of my early trials with multiple choice formatted exit questions where students initially submitted their responses using pen names for data privacy. The results show a stark contrast in the presentation of student content mastery. While the online inking function is a nice option to occasionally exercise, we found that a similar result can be obtained by having our students first ink solutions to multiple choice questions in their teacher accessible cloud-based notebooks and then later transfer their multiple choice responses to Formative. In a manner of speaking, we get the best of both worlds.

From left to right: GoFormative question summary view, student exit questions GoFormative view, student inking exit question responses on OneNote

So does the chicken or egg come first? Which is better, formative assessments before or after the homework? In the end, I don’t think it really matters so long as the teacher and learner are able to receive meaningful and immediate feedback regarding the success of their teaching effectiveness and mastery of learning.

The Quest Continues

Flickr photo by moneymetals shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

No matter what the subject or need, teachers always seem to be in a never ending search to find the best way to manage their classrooms and meet student learning needs. While I may have come close this time to achieving formative assessment nirvana, my own quest in finding the proverbial silver bullet will continue. Despite some remarkable initial successes in implementing a system of digital exit tickets using Formative, my work did not come without its challenges and consequently some necessary plans for future improvement.

The more manageable challenges that I encountered over the past several months using Formative were mostly technology based. For example, while trying create my second formative assessment, I discovered that complex mathematical expressions can not be directly entered into the question design space. Thanks to the friendly assistance provided by the Formative technical support team, I learned that an online equation editor called can be used to generate the expressions I needed in a compatible format. While working back and forth between Formative and can be at times tedious, see the GIF below, the system for me has worked since flawlessly. My students and I also discovered that if responses to multiple choice questions are entered too soon while exiting Formative, their last response will not be retained. This is evident in the image above where gaps exist in the multiple choice responses on the left. As a result, the data I was hoping to gather from individual classes was sometimes incomplete.


Type Feedback Here

feedbackThe simple technical glitches mentioned above are bound to happen using any web-based learning application. The only condition required to finding necessary fixes is that the user has to be resourceful and persistence. Unfortunately, this did not apply when I tried to establish a method of providing students with meaningful and timely learning feedback nor did it apply when I wanted to analyze student formative assessment data beyond a quick scan.

While Formative does offer an option for students to see instant scoring of their exit questions, there isn’t a way that I am aware of where feedback can be automatically provided regarding the appropriateness of selecting one answer choice versus another. I can, however, just like a paper document provide feedback to students on multiple choice and free-response questions. Unlike handwritten comments, teachers using Formative can electronically send feedback to each individual student enrolled in a particular class by typing feedback for each individual question answered correct or incorrect.

While quick and easy to read data displays are available to determine the number of multiple choice questions answered correctly, highlighting individual students, and identifying trends, Formative doesn’t provide the reasons why students get some questions correct and others incorrect. No matter what format a question is written in, carefully analyzing the work that students produce takes precious time. If you really want to understand students’ learning progress in math, you simply have to pick apart the work that students show one question at a time and provide lots and lots of feedback. It has too much value in the teaching and learning process not to do so. Education researchers Drs. John Hattie and Robert Marzano have both published works that show significant increases in student achievement by measure of effect size and percentile scores as a result of providing learners with meaninful feedback. In the end, no matter how good Formative or any other similar application is, the challenges of time management when writing and analyzing completed formative assessments are still and will likely always be present. For now anyway, while Formative is the best I’ve found so far, discovering the next silver bullet of formative assessments in education will remain best described as “still elusive.”


Flickr photo by mrkrndvs shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license.
Flickr photo by mrkrndvs shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license.

My goal going into the new school year was to apply yet another approach to try and successfully integrate a consistent system of formative assessments that ultimately improved teaching and learning outcomes. Without conducting formal research, it’s hard to definitively quantify the effects of my work with GoFormative and digital exit tickets. Nevertheless, do I feel that my instruction is more well-informed and that my students’ learning and mastery of content have increased? Yes. When formative assessment results revealed that large numbers of my students or in some cases individual students were struggling with content mastery during specific lessons, I was able to successfully intervene and remediate by a measure of relative success on subsequent assessments, e.g. quizzes and tests. Looked at through the lens of Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model, I would even go so far as to say that the means taken to meet the desired outcomes of my project have reached the level known as redefinition. This is where a teacher’s integration of technology allows for the creation of new tasks previously held inconceivable.

In hindsight, there are certainly some aspects of my integration plan that I would approach differently. For example, I would be more purposeful about providing greater and more timely assessment feedback to my students. Additionally, I would write and share exit questions in a more global sense that could be re-purposed by other educators in a wider variety of learning environments. The ideal changes mentioned above will not happen overnight nor will they happen without additional and unforeseen challenges. To be certain, however, my teaching practices and the learning experiences of my students will be positively impacted by my continuous efforts to digitally go formative.

Course 5 Final Project Video

Please note that all named production resources and music and image credits appear at the end of this video.

PLN Growth Through Community Engagement

A Story of Building Connections
within a Community


The quote from A.L. Kennedy does a pretty good job of summarizing my journey in developing a professional learning network through community engagement over the past year while in the COETAIL program.

a222“Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successfully or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.” A.L. Kennedy

The image on the right is the result of one of our very first tasks as COETAIL students – create a bubble map representing my professional learning communities. My beginnings were humble to say the least and for the most part still are especially in comparison to other extremely talented PLN developers like Suzy Ramsden and Pana Asavavatana. However, as the saying goes, at the end of the day it’s the journey that matters the most. The entire process to date has left me with a feeling of personal enrichment and deep professional engagement on a truly global scale.

I’d like to share part of that journey with you, but I won’t tell a story that is abundant in words, quotes, and hyperlinks. Instead, I’ll share my experiences through the use of images capturing the development of my professional learning network and community involvement.

Dipping My Toes Into the Water – From Lurker to Participant

When I first started the COETAIL program, I was a second time user of Twitter. I tried it briefly when it first started becoming massively popular as a social media platform. Months later I set Twitter aside and eventually deleted my account. About 14 months ago I started using Twitter again with a new account @CJHoffman03. Not long afterwards, I started creating connections with a handful of others. While I am not at the 10,000 mark or more with my Twitter followers, the statistics of my humble beginnings have certainly improved. Concerned about the measure of your community engagement by virtue of the number of followers you have? The article, The Art of Building Your Twitter Following According to Twitter by blogger Dara Fontein, may help you and those new to Twitter and PLN building find solace when considering the quality versus quantity of your social media engagement.


What Does Engagement Look Like? 

Like many others, I have pondered the purpose of my community engagement. Should I use it as an opportunity to develop and sell my own brand? Do I want to grow my professional learning network and engage with others in meaningful dialog relating to the latest developments in educational pedagogy? Is it appropriate to mix the two together along with elements of my own personal and social life? I have done a little bit of all three over the past year but do admit that I keep most of my personal and social life networking growth in a more private setting on Facebook. A little bit of the latter, my personal and social life, especially on Twitter adds, in my opinion, a human element to my online presence beyond being all about the business of education.


The Not So Visible Presence of PLN Growth and Community Engagement

I have found Twitter to be an especially great way to interact with more diverse and larger audiences albeit in 140 words or less. However, when I have wanted to reach out to others in a deeper, more personal. or targeted environment, my tools of choice have been Google+, blogs, and email. Commenting exchanges within a blog post and email offer opportunities for community involvement in a quieter setting while still remaining globally connected.


Inviting and Encouraging Others

The greatest lesson that I have learned in the recent months while building my professional learning network through community engagement in a global setting is that growth takes time, patience, and above all else, kindness. Acknowledging others’ presence on Twitter, inviting continued professional dialog, and offering support to new members of a learning community can do wonders in increasing the number of connections within a network while offering participants a greater sense of fulfillment in their interactions with others.


Photo Credit

Growing Network Model, Image Used by Permission, Dr. Mark Styvers, University of California Irvine

New Things That Fly – ACE

New school years and change are familiar friends. Administrators, teachers and students equally anticipate their arrival with a variety of emotions including excitement and anxiety. While administrators prepare for new initiatives and goals that move strategic plans forward, teaching faculty eagerly await a sea of new students curious about the learning and activities ahead of them. This year, unlike any other, I had the opportunity to add a new dimension to the start of the school year excitement. During our annual clubs and activities assembly, I unveiled a first-ever offering that represents a years old dream of teaching kids how to fly radio controlled aircraft. My new club, known as ACE or Aviation Club Explorers, represents one of many co-curricular activities available to our students at Taipei American School. With only few modifications, seven weeks into the new year, the club is on track and going strong. Below is a short video that I created, using skills and techniques acquired during my COETAIL program, designed to help introduce and promote ACE at our school’s August assembly.

YouTube Preview Image

A Humble Beginning

Little known to many is that in between the inception of the club’s idea and behind the scenes of the assembly video lies months of online research, learning, talking, networking, shopping, buying, writing, practice flying, and crashing. Even with years of flying experience in the military and as a recreational single and multi-engine pilot, I had absolutely no idea how to operate radio controlled aircraft not to mention starting a middle school flying club. So where does anyone in my position logically start? The internet and Google of course. Here is the first of many posts that I found relating to starting and operating a school-based RC flying club.

My greatest first learning steps forward, however, did not happen as a result of online research. They happened instead by visiting hobby stores specializing in radio controlled aircraft and talking and networking with owners, employees, and customers. My first store visit interestingly happened only blocks away from our school. The owner, a flying enthusiast himself, sold aircraft and accessories on a part time basis out of his garage. I learned from him the first of many of new words relating to the jargon of radio controlled flying, initial cost estimates, and the realities of limited open flying space in Taipei, Taiwan. It seems almost comical looking back now at the initial plans and cost estimates I sent to our school’s administration last spring when compared to the realities of the club today. While I am grateful for my first radio controlled aircraft experiences in Taiwan, I am relieved that I continued my learning and planning while at home in the United States during summer vacation prior to making any purchases of club equipment.

Getting the Right Gear

One thing that became very clear to me during my trip home was that radio controlled aircraft flying is an incredibly popular hobby in the United States. There is an abundance of hobby stores, distributors, flying fields, and online support sites and organizations to meet the needs of flying enthusiasts of all ability levels. By accessing these resources, I was able to more precisely identify the desired learning outcomes of my club and select the most appropriate equipment for my students to train and fly with. By the way, for the record the word drone is often misused to describe all things similar to quadcopters when in fact the word refers to a whole host of unmanned aerial vehicles. When I use the word drone below, I am referring to all types of radio controlled aircraft.

img_3726One of the most important limitations I had to work around was the availability of space. Taipei, Taiwan is the capital city of one of the most densely populated countries in the world. While open spaces such as play grounds and public soccer fields do exist, none are close enough to our school that make weekly bus travel a practical option. I also had to be mindful of our school’s policies regarding the operation of any drone type aircraft on our campus grounds. Anything my students and I flew would have to be slow and agile enough to operate in closed spaces such as large classrooms and gymnasiums.

After multiple trips back and forth between several hobby stores specializing in radio controlled aircraft and consulting with their expert sales staff, I settled on four different types of aircraft shown in the image above. Each type would provide students with a variety of increasingly challenging flying experiences while utilizing a mix bind and fly and ready to fly technology. In the same order that students train and fly, the aircraft I selected are: the Blade Inductrix Quadcopter, the Parkzone Night Vapor, the Hobbyzone Sport Cub S, and the Blade CP S Helicopter. They are all powered by electrical motors using rechargeable lithium batteries. For beginners, the aircraft are relatively slow and simple to fly and can withstand crashes without the risk of hurting others or damaging school property. I personally bought one of each of the above mentioned aircraft to train and practice with ahead of my students. The video below shows one of my first attempts at indoor flying in our middle school gym. It’s much harder than it looks.

YouTube Preview Image

More than a Game

One of the challenges that I’ve faced so far while working with middle school aged kids in ACE and an overall goal of the club is to move students beyond seeing a radio controlled aircraft as a toy or a game. Modern day radio controlled aircraft are incredibly complex machines. The design, operation, and performance characteristics of aircraft are in many ways identical to their full size counterparts. Aircraft propulsion systems include the use of powerful lithium batteries, gas combustion engines, and even small turbine jet engines which can produce speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. Aircraft of all types including stereotypical drones can be pre-programmed to automatically fly predetermined routes using GPS coordinates while providing operators with remarkable first person view imagery and videography.

YouTube Preview Image

The curriculum of the club is very well-structured and in many ways mimics the flight training experiences I had while learning to fly in the military and as a recreational pilot. The program begins with an introduction to the club and its goals and a simple flying demonstration. In subsequent sessions students learn about the basic principles of flight, radio controlled aircraft equipment, and flying safety. One of the teaching resources that I often use is provided by It’s a multi-purposed website dedicated to educating and informing persons interested in learning and participating in the world of radio controlled flight. Their high quality pre-recorded shows include a full 10-part beginner series that starts with an introduction to choosing the right airplane to flying basic aerobatic maneuvers.

Before students are allowed to fly each aircraft type, they are required to gain proficiency operating similar aircraft programmed into our Phoenix 5.5 flight simulators. The state of the art simulators, specifically engineered for radio controlled aircraft training, allow students to safely operate aircraft in a forgiving environment while also building their familiarity and comfort using our Spektrum DX6 transmitters. The simulators provide the added extra benefit of having a computer aided drafting function called Phoenix Builder such that users can design, build, and share over the internet their own virtual aircraft. Once students have demonstrated an ability to operate the aircraft on the ground and in flight through a pre-determined set of commands and maneuvers, they are allowed to fly the actual aircraft through increasingly challenging maneuvers and competitions such as pylon racing. Students learn very quickly that flying a radio controlled aircraft of any type takes a lot of practice, a high degree of skill, and most of all patience.

Beyond ACE

Like it says in my clubs and activities assembly video, flying is fun – learn to fly. But beyond the fun of flying, what else can ACE offer its participants? In the Edudemic article What Drone Technology Can Teach Students, the author Leah Anne Levy just begins to scratch the surface of learning possibilities. While debates concerning drones continue to increase in the media and legal chambers around the world, so to will their development, use, and regulation.

“The Federal Aviation Administration said last week that it expects 2.5 million drones to be in use in the U.S. by the end of 2016, and it expects that number to triple to more than 7 million by 2020, reports Daily Mail.”


Education initiatives like STEM will play a large role in the changes surrounding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. From the operators including pilots who fly them to the engineers who design them, the skills and learning experiences provided in our schools will help to prepare students for the new careers that are sure to follow. What better place for a young person to start and spark his or her interest than in a school sponsored radio controlled flying club like ACE?

Welcome Back Mr. Hoffman

CC0 Public Domain Free for commercial use. No attribution required.
CC0 Public Domain
Free for commercial use.
No attribution required.

My guess is that the email I received from the administration and coaches of COETAIL elicited the same response in others as it did me. Upon reading reading the welcome back emails and watching Rebekah’s screencast, I quickly returned to my course 4 final project post to review what I committed to last spring. It wasn’t an act made in panic or desperation but rather, a quick glance to get back into to the rhythm of COETAIL and make sure I hadn’t missed anything since my planning work last spring.

Choosing a Project 

If I had the time this year, I would actually implement both of my project ideas into my classroom practice. The community communication board and the use of digital formative assessments have the capacity to improve classroom instruction and greatly enhance the student learning experience. In the end, however, given the adoption and implementation this year of new textbooks in both of my math and science classes and the need for effective time management, I limited myself to implementing GoFormative as a digital formative assessment tool.

My choice was also made out of prioritizing students’ learning needs. Results indicated too often that students were not being provided adequate feedback on their learning progress throughout a unit of study during periods of instruction leading up to a summative assessment. Typically students completed one quiz, one test, and homework in between during each unit of instruction with few if any other opportunities for feedback and improved teaching and learning. Furthermore, traditional paper quizzes and homework did not provide adequate information revealing gaps in instruction and emerging trends with students. Research findings highlighted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics show the many benefits of quality formative assessment practices. Similar findings further supported my project choice.

“Formative assessment produces greater increases in student achievement and is cheaper than other efforts to boost achievement, including reducing class sizes and increasing teachers’ content knowledge.”


Flickr photo by Harald Groven shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license.

During my 20 years of classroom teaching experience. I have tried a variety of formative assessment practices. The challenge was always the same. How do you find adequate classroom time to conduct the assessments, interpret the results, and provide students with meaningful feedback without being beaten down halfway through the year by logistical overload? When I have used paper exit tickets or even tickets using OneNote classroom notebooks, the task of going through many dozens of tickets each day can be monumental and overwhelming.

So Many Products so Little Time

Digital formative assessment applications are no strangers to classrooms, math included. Some, like Yearly Progress Pro and Mastery Connect are purchasable products with very elaborate structures that have the ability to map standards directly to formative assessments while tracking students’ learning progress. Others can be easily made using Google products and available extensions such as Flubaroo. There are others like Socratrive and Quizlet that are ready to use with both free and purchasable versions. In fact, without much effort a teacher can easily locate and try any number of many digital formative assessment tools. Here’s a recent list of 55 available tools presented by NWEA, the Northwest Evaluation Association.

Somewhere last year between browsing through my Twitter account and reading articles about new gadgets in classroom technology, I learned about GoFormative. The first aspect that caught my attention was students’ ability to free-write online. This is incredibly important when teaching math and asking students to show their steps in problem solving. Other options that led me to select GoFormative as my digital tool of choice included: ease of assessment creation and organization, flexible delivery options, quick to analyze results pages, and the ability to share assessments with other teachers. Over the summer I spent some very valuable time learning about about how to implement its use around my proposed project plan. While there have been and still will be some bugs to work out, the entire process so far has been incredibly smooth and successful.

Learning How

During the first four days of school I introduced my students to GoFormative. Instead of having students joining GoFormative directly using their school assigned Gmail accounts, for privacy purposes I had them create a secret online first name and last name based on their class and period. This practice will be changing in the future. This name structure we started with is evident in the image below showing the results of 3 consecutive sets of recently completed exit questions. Once the accounts were created, we took a tour of GoFormative from both a student’s and teacher’s perspective. Students learned how to use the quick access code feature and complete a practice exit ticket, a.k.a. formative assessment, without using their Gmail or personal information.


Early Results

To date, my students have successfully completed a total of 13 digital exit tickets give or take a few questions due to the sometimes quirky behavior of GoFormative, students’ tablet use, and occasional wireless connectivity issues. Each lesson ends with two to three exit questions depending on the complexity and type of the questions and the length of the lesson.

There have been some minor adjustments to my plan and challenges that I did not foresee including not being able to enter complex mathematical expressions such as fractions and square roots into the question writing space. With a little bit of research and getting connected with the GoFormative online community the problem was easily solved using an equation editor application called HostMath. I have also since our first trials been given approval to have students sign up with GoFormative using their assigned Gmail accounts. This will allow students to join classes that I have already set up thereby giving them access to instant feedback following the completion of their exit tickets.

Writing the questions and organizing them on my GoFormative dashboard according to each math class, unit, and lesson has become a more or less comfortable routine. Beyond this routine, however, how will I act on the results? This question I was recently posed to me when I applied for a GoFormative badge. Given that red means an incorrect response in the results shown above, I still have a lot of good work ahead of me including some reteaching, re-planning, and reflecting. It’s a work in progress that will be shared in future posts. Until then, GoFormative!


Making Withdrawls from the Bank of Reflection – Course 4 Final Project

Flickr photo by free pictures of money shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

On a number of memorable occasions throughout my career as a teacher, I’ve heard veteran educators liken the art and science of teaching to making deposits into a bank. The deposits can come in many different forms including the act of being disciplined in developing strong habits of best professional practices. The strength of this mindset is that, like an investment in the future, it is growth orientated. As educators, the deposits we make now can be withdrawn on later to increase our teaching effectiveness.

My first two years as a teacher can be best characterized as marginally effective in addition to thinking and working just hours ahead of my students on a day-to-day basis. As chaotic as those years were, I did learn quickly about the benefits of constant reflection especially as it relates to identifying and addressing my students’ learning needs. It’s a powerful professional growth habit and one that I have since deposited vast amounts of time and energy in improving. With the current school year nearing an end, I decided it was time to make a well-deserved withdrawal from my reflective efforts as I began to look ahead toward to fulfilling the final course requirements of the COETAIL program.

The two project options that I decided explore were born not out of a desire to integrate technology into my teaching practice, but rather as an effort to address identified student learning needs. In a sense, it wasn’t necessary to look for project options beyond the process of professional reflection that I had already engaged in throughout the school year. Reflection led me to two important discoveries. First I realized a need to implement a better system of formative assessments that would result in improved student learning outcomes and increased teaching effectiveness. I also recognized that, through numerous work samples and other forms of communication, a deficit existed in my students’ ability to communicate effectively in the language of mathematics. While amusing in a middle school sort of way, a recent and timely email from one of my students as quoted below affirmed my conclusions. And yes by the way, I would prefer that the student use the word apex instead of describing it as the “pointy part.”

“Dear Mr. Hoffman, Are we required to write the angle for the pointy part of our net for the cone?”


Background Information

I teach 7th grade math and science at Taipei American School. Both of the project options described below (Community Communication Board and Digital Exit Tickets) would be incorporated into two of the three math math courses offered at my grade level: Pre-Algebra and Math 7. Given the high level of support and collaboration that takes place on our teaching team, I don’t feel that the necessary changes in the application of technology and instruction will present any significant challenges to my team members or me. Furthermore, my students learn in a well-supported 1:1 device environment using Lenovo ThinkPad tablets. My own experience includes years of flipped classroom and blended learning lesson design and teaching as well as integrating a wide variety of technology tools to support student learning. Using the SAMR model and the ISTE Standards as a means to assess technology use and integration in my classroom and school, I feel that my students and I are very well prepared to meet the changes that would accompany either of the two project options below.

Community Communication Board

One challenge that math teachers constantly face is getting younger students to effectively communicate in the language of mathematics. The National Council of Mathematics Teachers Principles and Standards for School Mathematics emphasizes the importance of mathematical communication by stating that instructional programs from pre-kindergarten through grade 12 should enable all students to:

  • Organize and consolidate their mathematical thinking through communication

  • Communicate their mathematical thinking coherently and clearly to peers, teachers, and others

  • Analyze and evaluate the mathematical thinking and strategies of others;

  • Use the language of mathematics to express mathematical ideas precisely.

The Community Communication Board project that I am proposing would provide students with a digital platform (Padlet) to further develop their content related communication skills outside of the classroom learning space to a potentially vastly wider audience. I learned about the application while reading a blog post within my personal learning network. Students would communicate in a variety of capacities including: posting and responding to content related questions, participating in math chats, and reflecting on their learning in an open forum.

asdfasdfasdfasfasdfasdfasfasdfaMy plan would be to invite students to a class board similar to the one shown below by providing them access to a teacher-issued password. Each student would create and share privately with his/her teacher a pseudonym used on all posts. This would eliminate any need for the creation of accounts outside of the school’s domain. Padlet would also provide an acceptable alternative to other social media sites such Google+ and Twitter where age restrictions often prevent middle school student access.

Pursuing this project option would require little if any support from our school’s IT department. With the exception of creating the community board(s), coordinating with my math colleagues, and managing students’ screen names, there are few logistical requirements necessary to start this project. Padlet is a very flexible technology application with easy to use administrative and editing controls. Students and teachers can easily upload multi-media to their posts including videos, photographs, and documents.

While the goal of using Padlet is to improves students’ abilities to communicate effectively in the language of mathematics, it also shifts their roles from consumers of information to creators and collaborators. This would require students to become comfortable with reflecting and writing about their learning experiences in a large open forum. There would also need to be a heightened awareness on their part of appropriate digital behavior while posting to a digital landscape. Pre-project implementation would require lessons and discussion on good digital citizenship beyond the Technology Use Policy that all of our TAS students are obligated to follow.


Digital Exit Tickets

My teaching team’s current use of formative assessments has not met our needs to monitor students’ progress and guide our teaching. The methods we use are largely based on a model that is more than half a century old. It’s a cycle based on learning evidence most often drawn from lecture-based questions, homework sets, and mid-unit quizzes. Often times much of the data we gather grossly lacks the real-time learning and remediation needs of our students. Available research would suggest changes in my team’s assessment practices. Positive outcomes resulting from formative assessments reported by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics include gains in student achievement and increases in teacher satisfaction and student engagement.

“Formative assessment is defined as planned classroom practice to elicit evidence of learning minute-to-minute, day-by-day in the classroom; along with non-summative assessments that occur while content is still being taught. Both of these can inform teachers of what students know or do not know, and help students understand what it is they are ready to learn next, so teachers can adjust their instruction accordingly for each of their students.”



While I have tried to incorporate exit tickets in my own classroom as a means of gathering formative data in the past, I have found the overall process to be logistically inefficient and difficult to sustain over the course of an entire school year especially using paper documents and having large numbers of students. During a search for formative assessment technology tools, I did find a viable solution to creating a system of logistically efficient and student-friendly digitally based exit questions across one or more classrooms. The name of the technology application is called Formative, and its useful integration into my team’s teaching practice is the focus of my second proposed final course project.

The Digital Exit Tickets project would focus on implementing a technology-based means of assessing students’ content knowledge with an overall goal of increasing student achievement and improving teacher instruction. Near the end of each learning segment, including flipped lessons, students would be directed to complete a teacher-generated set of assigned exit questions accessible via a quick access code or an online class membership. The benefit of the latter option is that teachers can provide assessment feedback to their students and readily gather and analyze whole class data. The former, however, allows students to access the exit questions without membership obligations. Like the
asedCommunity Communication Board project, students can create and use a pseudonym when accessing a set of exit questions using a quick access code. So long as students’ pseudonyms are shared with their teachers in advance, individual student learning progress can still be monitored.

The Formative application comes with an extensive user guide and has a number of features that would make it an ideal match for our classroom assessment needs. Questions can be written in a variety of formats including multiple choice, true-false, and free response. Digital images, video, and other content can easily be uploaded to further increase design options. The stylus function of our students’ Lenovo tablets would be well-suited for responding to free-response formatted questions. Solutions can be inked using a simple palette of colors and editing tools. There are a number of useful privacy and sharing options including the ability to create and share assessments with a global audience.

Building Excitement

Both of the project options described above were conceived well ahead of this course through a continuous process of teacher reflection. They are based on professional growth opportunities that I feel are necessary to better meet the diverse learning needs our grade level math students. Moreover the project options strongly reflect the learning that I have experience throughout the COETAIL program. So while this school year is rapidly drawing to a close, the reflections written in this post provide an exciting glimpse into the year ahead.

Don’t Blame the Device

In the Beginning There Was the Palm

IMG_0027Education is unlike any other profession when considering the remarkable number of close personal connections that teachers make with their students throughout their careers. For teachers and students alike, powerful memories are created during a school year that can be recalled years if not decades later with vivid clarity and emotion. I’d like to share with you a particular memory that I have of one of my former students now.

Not knowing it at the time, over ten years ago one of my former middle school students ushered me into the beginning of an epic journey in technology when I was introduced to his personal data assistant or PDA. He started using the handheld device during my geometry class as an organizational resource under special permission for his learning disability. To put this event in greater perspective, flip cell phones with camera technology and text messaging as a communication phenomena were just becoming widely accessible and popular with students in our middle school.

Since that now memorable day, I have experienced and witnessed during an invaluable personal learning journey some of the best and worst uses of technology devices in a school and classroom setting. At times understanding their function and best use has been like trying to build an airplane in the sky. You figure it out as you go, learn from your mistakes, and try to make each new day better than the one before. The paragraphs that follow highlight some of my experiences and the learning that has taken place as a result.

Going 1:1 from BYOD 

Two years ago I transitioned from a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) environment at a large public middle school in the United States to a 1:1 tablet environment at a comparatively smaller private international school in Asia. In the latter school, cell phones and other personal devices are strictly not allowed out of lockers during the school day. There are many resources available online that compare and contrast both models. My own classroom teaching reflections yield mixed views that tend to favor the 1:1 environment.

Flickr photo by perspec_photo88 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license.

One distinct advantage of being in a 1:1 teaching environment is the uniformity of devices. Our faculty and students all use the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga which is, in my opinion, quite frankly the Cadillac of tablets. Students’ families must pay for the tablet as part of the tuition costs. There is a campus wide understanding of device functionality and pre-installed programs. Often times I have experienced many of the same challenges as my students with our tablets and am readily able to troubleshoot and resolve most minor operational problems. When that’s not possible, in addition to having a dedicated middle school IT coordinator who assists with instructional aspects of our 1:1 program, we have student and faculty help desks that manage all tablet maintenance and updates. For better or worse, this universal system also lends itself to more centralized control and security. This includes our IT department providing teaching faculty and school administration with an effective and well-liked student device monitoring program called DyKnow. Teaching and learning in a 1:1 environment with our Lenovo tablets has also allowed my math and science students and I to successfully pursue a nearly 100% paperless classroom. My math students in particular are experts in inking and organizing their homework and other assignments using OneNote and a precision digital stylus.

My experiences teaching in a BYOD environment tell a completely different yet meaningful story. While a very successful and financially sound school district, shrinking funding from local, state, and federal governments would make the 1:1 technology program I have access to now nearly impossible in my former school district. Including a nearly complete lack of technical support beyond my own knowledge to help my students, there were many other challenges related to the wide variety of devices used in the classroom by my students. Often times unless it was a web-based application, I could not rely on students having access to the same program applications. Furthermore, while we did have scholarship funds available for students whose families were unable to afford the cost of purchasing devices for their children, there was still an obvious level of inequity when comparing devices from student to student.

While at first glance my impressions of BYOD classrooms may create mental images of doom and gloom, there were a number of positive outcomes worthy of recognition. First, students did have a choice. In education systems that tend to be overly rigid with technology in the first place, it gives students and families more choice in terms of price, devices, operating systems, program applications, and compatibility. There is no doubt in my mind that most people will agree that buying any sort of technology device is as personally important of an experience as buying a car. Finally, while the uniformity of being in a 1:1 environment is really a luxury, I do at times miss the variety that I encountered in my BYOD classroom. I did get a first hand look, through the sampling provided by my students, of the different devices being used by a larger population. Beyond the Lenovo tablets we use now, I honestly don’t have much of an idea of the types of personal devices being used by students and families outside of the classroom. Given the fast pace of change in technology, I would certainly consider this aspect of my 1:1 experience to be a deficit.

Don’t Blame the Device

Personal, professional, and school technology devices come with as much or more criticism as they do praise. In the end, however, it’s not the device but rather the use or misuse of the device that determines its fate before the eyes of a critical public. At the forefront of criticism facing youth and personal technology devices are the often negative behaviors associated with their use including attention problems, life balance issues, and concerns related to the development and maintenance of social relationships. The following related research findings were published in an executive summary by Common Sense Media:

“Another study of 263 middle school, high school, and university students found that students studied for fewer than six minutes before switching to another technological distraction, such as texting or social media (Rosen, Carrier, & Cheever, 2013).”

Used by permission from Mr. Matt Wuerker at

“For example, in a survey of 8- to 13-year-olds and their parents, 54 percent of children felt that their parents checked their devices too often, and 32 percent of children felt unimportant when their parents were distracted by their phones (AVG Technologies, 2015).”

“Many researchers have noted that narcissism seems to be increasing, while empathetic traits have been on the decline, and have pointed to social media as a driver for that change (Konrath, 2012).”

“By modeling balanced media habits themselves as well as co-engaging with media, discussing media-related best practices, strategies, and ethical dilemmas, and setting limits around how, when, and where to use media, parents can act as “media mentors” (Samuel, 2015).”

The good news is that technology devices, BYOD or 1:1, have remarkable benefits in and out of the classroom when used with best practices and a healthy balance in mind. Teachers, parents, and others with opportunities to provide positive role modeling can help to ensure young persons engage in healthy and socially appropriate technology habits.

Always Learning 

Most of what I have learned about the management of devices in the classroom has happened either as a result of direct experience or conversations with other teachers. Some has been learned through professional development opportunities and online resources. In addition to the obvious steps that a teacher and school can take to promote the appropriate use of technology devices (e.g. following a school-wide technology user policy) here are a few things that I have learned and found to be helpful throughout the years.

  • Don’t assume that students know how to use their devices. Students of all ages need to learn how to care for their devices including keeping them clean, well-charged, updated, and secure. They also need to be taught organizational strategies for things like folder management and file protection.
  • Model appropriate device care and behavior. Talk explicitly about show what it looks like. Don’t model the very things you wouldn’t want your students to do. My phone stays put away during class when students are present. I limit multi-tasking and screen switching to essential classroom management and teaching needs only.
  • Arrange your room in a manner that is supportive of technology. If you have a laptop or tablet that is tethered to an LCD projector cable, take time to move throughout the classroom during lessons. Don’t get anchored to one spot in the room. If it’s possible, go wireless projection. I use it now and would never go back to anything else. Arrange desks and furniture in such a way that maximizes movement throughout the classroom and provides opportunities for student collaboration with technology. My dream classroom would include 21st century technology compatible furniture, mobile digital displays, and easily accessible charging sources.
  • Establish positive routines and expectations starting day one. My students know how to disengage from their tablets in a variety of ways at a moments notice. Successful methods I’ve used include having students place their tablet screens at 45 degrees, keeping their hands at their sides and off their tablets, and turning devices face down. When my students’ device behavior doesn’t meet our collective needs, I only have myself to blame as I go back and try to find another way to make technology work effectively in my classroom.

Old Habits Die Hard

As my parents have gotten older, it’s been increasingly important for me to understand their lives and the world they grew up in and how that world has since changed. It’s a frequent topic of conversation during our visits together. My parents often talk about the challenges they learned to overcome and the remarkable change they’ve witnessed throughout their lives. Even at this point in my life, their thoughtful reflections and aged wisdom help me make better sense of the world I live in.

Flickr photo by Seattle Municipal Archives shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

My mom and dad were born near the end of the Great Depression. Their parents were first generation Americans who left rural farms for a better life and greater opportunities in the cities. By the time my parents were 20 years old, they had already started a family and entered the 1950’s American work force with a high school education. It’s a classic story of the American life experience.

Their school experience, which is now often described as a factory model of education prepared them for the needs of a post-war American economy and society. The knowledge, skills, and social behaviors that my parents learned in school were sufficient for the blue-collar union jobs they held and retired from decades later. As the saying goes, old habits die hard; the model hasn’t change much in the past 60 years.

With increasingly stronger demands for education reform and the incredible growth in computer technologies that are profoundly changing nearly every aspect of our daily lives, there is growing criticism that our current education model is ill-equipped to provide today’s learners with 21st century skills necessary for life in a global society.

“One of the most common ways to criticize our current system of education is to suggest that it’s based on a “factory model.” An alternative condemnation: ‘industrial era.’ The implication is the same: schools are woefully outmoded.”

Searching for Some Silver Bullets

Addressing the challenges facing contemporary education is an incredibly complex task. While there are no silver bullets in creating a model that will meet the increasingly diverse and rapidly changing needs of learners on a global scale, there are certainly a few steps in the right direction that education leaders, teachers, and communities can take.

In a side-by-side comparison of 20th and 21st century learning models, it’s easy to see the desired shift toward a more student-centered learning experience. Here is a list of universal design principles for tomorrow’s schools reported by Prakash Nair in the Education Week article The Classroom Is Obsolete: It’s Time for Something New:

(1) personalized; (2) safe and secure; (3) inquiry-based; (4) student-directed; (5) collaborative; (6) interdisciplinary; (7) rigorous and hands-on; (8) embodying culture of excellence and high expectations; (9) environmentally conscious; (10) offering strong connections to the local community and business; (11) globally networked; and (12) setting the stage for lifelong learning.

A glimpse into this desired reality can be found in a growing number of new schools designed around 21st century learning principles. One such amazing example is the global award winning Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School.

The Chicken or the Egg?

Flickr photo shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

Trying to understand the roll of technology in education is a little bit like trying to figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg. From a teaching and learning perspective, does technology drive change in education, or do 21st century design principles such as our need to provide personalized learning experiences and opportunities for inquiry and collaboration drive developments in technology?

It’s impossible to argue against the idea that one of the main purposes of education is to sustain the existence of the human race. From our first days in school throughout our lives as life long learners, we learn how to how to take care of ourselves, communicate with one another, and adapt to the world around us. Changes in education would therefore seem to be a natural consequence of the development and uses of new technologies.

“In the United States, historically, the purpose of education has evolved according to the needs of society. Education’s primary purpose has ranged from instructing youth in religious doctrine, to preparing them to live in a democracy, to assimilating immigrants into mainstream society, to preparing workers for the industrialized 20th century workplace.”


On the other hand, it’s fair to say that new ideas in nearly every human endeavor have been born out of questions that arise from problems. For example, how can we create and share knowledge with one another across a global landscape? Likewise, how can learning content be made accessible to the time and space needs of the individual learner? Given the scenarios above, it would appear that 21st century education and changes in technology are mutually dependent on one another. In an interview with television host Steve Paikin, learning scholar and author of the article Connectivism: Learning Theory for the Digital Age, George Siemens summarizes many of the important and complex relationships that exist between technology, learning, and changes in education.

Reinventing Education with the Past in Mind

Given the rapid pace of the world we live in, one doesn’t have to look back 60 years or more ago to realize the immediate necessity of finding solutions to challenges faced by our society in developing an effective and all inclusive 21st century model of education. Certainly one characteristic of any proposed future model will be an ability to adapt to continuous and rapid changes in technology. New approaches to teaching and learning including finding solutions that address challenges faced by students in accessing higher education are being introduced all the time. Just a handful of the many new technology-based ideas include creating blended learning environments, flipping classrooms, and providing higher education learning opportunities via EdxUnCollege, and MOOCS. The movie Ivory Tower, see the trailer below, provides an excellent glimpse into higher education challenges and online options. For any time in the foreseeable future, no matter the education model or the amount of technology used to support it, there will always be room for sound and timeless relationship-driven teaching practices.

Think Before You Flip

A Misplaced Hero

Famed entrepreneur Salman Kahn the founder of the incredibly popular Kahn Academy is in many respects one of today’s most important and yet somewhat misplaced heroes in contemporary education. It is true that he has made thousands of instructional videos spanning a broad range of content topics that have benefited countless students throughout the world. Not to his own fault, however, many educators including myself have incorrectly identified his inspiring work as flipped classroom instruction. While this post is not about Salman Kahn, his work does provide an open door to examine more closely the realities of the flipped classroom. My own past experiences with flipped classroom instruction have taught me that it’s truly more than just making videos.

Still Trying to Get it Right

My first experiences in fundamentally changing the delivery of lesson content via teacher-created videos occurred in 2009 during a summer technology workshop when I was introduced to a new screencasting application called Jing. Diving in without knowing how or what to do, I started to experiment. While crude by today’s standards, my early screencast videos were created out of a need for continued instruction during personal absences from the classroom. My guest teachers were not qualified to teach math, and I did not want my students to fall unnecessarily behind. Following some initial successes, I started to respond to students’ homework questions sent to me by email with custom made answers via a personalized screencast. The following school year, I decided as a professional learning goal to introduce each new unit in my math courses with a lesson delivered via a video. I also upgraded to a more versatile screencasting platform called Screencastomatic which allowed me to include a separate webcam presence in addition to the captured tablet screen. My goal was to make homework nights following unit tests more meaningful. Because of the changes I made in the delivery of lesson content, I was able to use newly available time to conduct valuable one-on-one post-test conferences with my students. By my third and fourth year, I was successfully flipping entire courses including an Advanced Placement Statistics course. My measures of success were increased academic engagement, improved overall course grades, and higher standardized test scores, Fast forward to today with over 400 lesson videos now behind me, I am still learning and trying to get it right! The paragraphs that follow are mostly based on reflections from my own experiences in flipping classroom instruction over the past 8 years. As the saying goes, if I only knew now what I didn’t know then. The infographic below serves as a visual map of my journey, reflections, and recommendations.

Think Before You Flip – The Realities of Flipping a Classroom


1. Discover

There is an abundance of resources available to educators providing detailed information about the philosophy and development of flipped classroom instruction. To fully understand the pedagogy behind the name, teachers need to take the time to learn and understand this innovative approach to teaching and learning prior to its implementation. So what is flipped classroom instruction? The leadership at the Flipped Learning Network, provides the following definition:

Flipped Learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.

While I was able to figure things out by trial and error and somehow stumble across a reasonable approximation of the definition above, a little bit of background research in my early days would have gone a long ways in terms of shortening my learning curve.

2. Define a Purpose

Flipping a classroom can serve a wide variety of instructional purposes. What do you want to accomplish? Do you want your students to access higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy? Is your goal to redefine teacher and student roles in the classroom? Is there a targeted group of learners you want to reach and serve in different ways? Maybe you looking for new opportunities to infuse technology in your teaching? There are all sorts of reasons, some good and some not so good, for making the shift to a flipped classroom. If you are unsure, a quick Google search will help you articulate a purpose of your own. Whatever the reason, knowing your motive ahead of time will help you focus your efforts and maximize your students’ learning results in the long run.

3. Learn How

Learn how to leverage and infuse technology to support your flipped classroom instruction, but just don’t do it by yourself. Especially in larger schools, teachers can succumb to their own self-imposed yet unintended isolation. We learn something new at a workshop or read about it in an article and decide it’s worth trying in our own classrooms without fully accessing the support and expertise that others can provide to increase our chances of successful implementation. Over the past years, IT support staff have provided me with a variety of valuable resources and instruction including the use of studio quality microphones and webcams, and access to screencasting applications such as Explain EverythingCamtasia, and SnagIT. Conversations with other teachers have led to new discoveries and experience-based support that would have otherwise not likely occurred while working in isolation. The access to and use of PLN’s adds an entirely new dimension to a newbie’s flipped classroom support network.

4. Sell the Product

Nothing strikes fear in the hearts and minds of administrators, parents, and students like the lack of information and misinformation. Sell your ideas, plans, and goals before you start to flip. One of the most important lessons I learned in implementing the flipped classroom model was to have as much control over the flow of information as possible. Let all stakeholders know why you want to make the change, how it will help learners, and what it will look like in classroom. The last thing any educator wants is to have someone think he or she is no longer teaching students when in fact nothing could be further from the truth in the realities of flipped classroom instruction. Providing the sort of information found in the handout The Four Pillars of F-L-I-P by the Flipped Learning Network can go a a long ways in reducing the fear and anxiety sometimes associated with educational change. I especially like the highly student-centered facts listed on the right side of the document.

5. Make Videos

The road to successfully implementing a flipped classroom is paved with a lot discarded videos and frustration. Choices have to be made ahead of time regarding who will make the videos and how they will be made and accessed. Making, editing, publishing, and posting a single 15 minute video can easily be an hour or longer affair. Doing this 150 times in one year to flip an entire course requires large amounts of planning and perseverance. Doing it with two completely different courses can be breathtakingly overwhelming. Given the case where a person works on a team with multiple teachers who teach the same course, I recommend that all members contribute to making lesson videos including having two or more teachers being present on the same video. Working solo? Take it slow. You don’t need to build Rome in one year. These reflections raise the question of whether or not the teacher always needs to be the one making the videos? I’ve learned that the answer is usually no. There are many other content resources available including TeacherTube, YouTube, and Khan Academy with thousands of well-made videos across a wide range of subject areas to choose from. You as the teacher can choose the videos or students can learn to select video content that best meets their learning needs. On two occasions in the past I have had students make and share their own screencasts as part of a formative assessment process. There are plenty of resources available that outline best practices when it comes to making video screencasts for flipped classrooms. Here are a few of my own suggestions from past experience.

  • Choose a place for students to access your videos that meets learners’ needs and complies with school requirements.
  • Take time in advance to teach students how to effectively watch and interact with a video screencast. Don’t assume that, “they’ll just figure it out.”
  • Select a quiet place and time of the day to make your screencasts without interruptions. No one likes hearing an announcement made on the public address system at an unwanted time.
  • Be comfortable with your voice, presence, and little mistakes. Tiny imperfections in your videos will not cause the Earth to quit revolving around its axis.
  • Know what’s in your video background. Do you really want the world to see ______? Fill the blank in for yourself.
  • Is there anything on your screen that would be an infringement of copyright law?
  • Seriously, don’t drink soda pop or other carbonated beverages during your video for obvious reasons, water yes.

6. Being Accountable

Presentation3One of the most powerful memories I ever had when first starting my journey in the world of flipped classroom instruction was when a fellow colleague asked me, “what will you do if they don’t watch the video?” It’s a great question about student learning accountability. There will be days when students return to your classroom without watching the assigned video. They may have been absent the day before, or they may have forgotten. Some may have chosen not to watch your video lesson despite understanding the requirement and consequences. The bottom line is that they will be back in your classroom the next day. What will you do when they return?

Presentation2There are many ways that teachers can monitor students’ engagement with online content. The screenshot above is from one of my former flipped middle school algebra courses that I managed and delivered via Moodle. I currently use Blackboard which provides a similar content tracking mechanism. Despite these advances in technology there is no guarantee that a student will truly watch and engage with your flipped lesson content. As I have discovered with brutally honest students, a kid merely needs to click on a link, walk away, and then let a video run its course. I have used and still do to some degree of success, create short formative assessments such as the exit question quizzes shown on the right that accompany video segments. Again, there are some students who will guess and click their way through the assessment without ever watching the video. There are others who will minimally engage with the video content and still successfully complete the formative assessments. They simply figure the content out on their own. In the end, I have learned that the only true measure of accountability is the summative assessment provided at the end of a unit. If a student manages to demonstrate mastery by applying his or her own learning resourcefulness without the benefit of your flipped classroom does it really matter anyway? They’ve succeeded.

7. Adapt to Your New Role

At no other time in my career as an educator can I honestly say that I have felt more like a facilitator and consultant of learning than I have while using the flipped classroom model. In many respects, identifying and adapting to my new role happened as a natural consequence of the learning environment that I created. The evolution of my role in the classroom has, in my opinion, contributed to the following five most important outcomes in my practice. These outcomes are largely synonymous with many other reports of positive benefits associated with flipped classroom instruction. Notice that increased student achievement levels, although realized, is not mentioned.

  1. An overall more flexible learning environment
  2. The development of more independent learners
  3. More positive and meaningful interactions with my students
  4. Deeper student and teacher engagement with learning content
  5. A shared increase in the enjoyment of teaching and learning

Simply because of the incredible shift that has taken place in how learning content is delivered and accessed, all teachers’ roles will somehow change in the flipped classroom model. The one constant that will exist in all cases is that classrooms will become less teacher and more student centered.

8. Know When to Flip

A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology giving a lecture. CC BY-SA 3.0

For those who say that the lecture is dead, I fully disagree. While other models of teaching and advances in technology have led to new and innovative ways of delivering content and engaging students, to be fair, lecture as an effective method is far from dead. Call it professional judgement or teacher instinct, there are many times in my own content areas of math and science that I would very wisely choose not to deliver content in a form other than lecture. Using lecture as a delivery model still involves dialog, questioning, and vast opportunities for collaboration. Done right, it it includes inspiration, story telling, and the development of new ideas. It is far from a completely passive form of learning. Furthermore, lecture can still be supported by other resources including teacher-developed videos and other forms of shared online content. Likewise, there are times as by evidence in the preceding paragraphs that lecture is completely inappropriate as a teaching and learning model. The most skilled, flexible, and open-minded educator will know when and how to use the best approach for any given situation including lecture and flipped classroom learning.


Houston, We’ve Had a Problem…And It’s Good

The Times Are Changing or Are They? 

A recent post by Lindsey Kundel titled PBL: LEARNING THAT PREPARES FOR LIFE, gave me a glimpse back into my own teacher training experience more than 20 years ago. It seems like times haven’t changed that much after all. She describes the disconnect she discovered later in her career that exists between the development of her philosophy of education as an undergraduate and the realities of classroom teaching and 21st century needs of children. Lindsey writes:

We read Dewey. We read DuBois. We read Plato. We read Rousseau. We read and we read and we read. But after looking back at my final philosophy of education from that time period, I can’t help but be startled by the naivete of it all – and by some of the assumptions underlying the entire piece.

The assumptions she writes about in her post mirror what are often criticized as key faults of the learning experiences provided to students across all grade levels and subjects. These false assumptions include:

  • Teachers are the sole owners and distributors of knowledge.
  • Learning is relevant only in contexts that are framed by the four walls of a classroom.
  • Students learn content and are assessed in ways according to a predetermined and often inflexible set of rules.
Flickr photo by dullhunk shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

Moving away from these assumptions can be hard for both new and veteran teachers. Creating learning experiences rich in authentic context where both students and teachers assume new roles requires appropriate training, high levels of skill, and often times a lot of experience. Although Isaac Newton likely never thought his laws of motion would be used this way, mention of his First Law of Motion would be appropriate to describe the resistance to change in educational pedagogy. Newton’s law of motion states that, “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”

My own teacher preparation program and subsequent experience in the classroom even as recent as three years ago isn’t that different from the description that Lindsey provided. At the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, I read the same authors mentioned by Lindsey. I crafted my own philosophy of education and learned how to build lesson plans following the Madeline Hunter model. My 20th century technology training consisted of properly using overhead projectors and VCR players. Homework practice and assignments came from textbooks and teacher-prepared worksheets.

Despite the shortcomings by today’s standards mentioned above, the fact remains that many of my former students moved beyond my classroom and our schools to successfully pursue the challenges that awaited them in later life. They have since become educators, engineers, soldiers, and even medical doctors. However, I do not advocate the status quo. If not already here, there will be a time in the very near future where teaching methods from just a few short years ago will fall remarkably short of the demands of the world we live in today.

A Summary of the PBL’s

Figuratively speaking, gaining momentum in contemporary education are the not so necessarily new approaches to teaching and learning called project based and problem based learning, the PBL’s. While the principle elements of these two teaching practices are not unfamiliar to me, I did learn recently that the latter has its roots in training medical doctors. An article written in 1997 from the Journal of Medical Education provides some interesting background information.

As I understand project and problem based learning, both models and others similar to them strive to provide students with authentic experiences that are appropriate for developing 21st century life skills. Students are presented with contextually rich and largely often open-ended problems that require high levels of critical thinking. Associated activities may require students to research information, collaborate with others, and create bridges between their learning in other subject areas. Differences may exist between the PBL’s including the amount of student autonomy allowed, the time allocated to researching and developing solutions, and how potential solutions are presented to a wider audience. A summary of both models including their similarities and differences can be found in an Edutopia article by James Larmer titled Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL.

Houston, We’ve Had a Problem

On April 13, 1970 the crew of NASA’s Apollo 13 entered what could only be described by today’s standards as a reality show version of project based learning when mission commander Jim Lovell uttered those famous words, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” The astronauts experienced and survived a near-catastrophic equipment failure aboard their spacecraft. At one point during the recovery effort, a component in the equipment designed to rid the crew cabin in the lunar module of carbon monoxide proved to be insufficient to support the breathing needs of three astronauts versus the design requirements of two. See the video clip below at 20:30 running time for a description of the problem faced by the astronauts and NASA engineers. This moment was made famous in the Hollywood movie depicting the true life events of Apollo 13 starring the actor Tom Hanks. In my grade 7 science classes, the scene serves as an introduction to the engineering design process.

Thinking Like Engineers

The learning process my middle school science students engage in during two five-week long projects embodies many of the same essential elements found in project based learning. The engineering design process is cyclic in nature and involves five main phases: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, and Improve. Working in teams of three, students are first presented with an open-ended question. Our first project deals with simple hydraulic machines and the second forces in motion. Student teams are provided some choice within specified constraints to determine a more focused question to pursue. All information and supporting documents during the engineering design process are exchanged through the Google Classroom. Teams members constantly monitor and reflect on their progress and share with each other critiquing comments while also assessing their ability to work effectively as a team.

Research is conducted during the Ask phase to gather necessary background information relevant to the design question. Students then work independently of one another during the first half of the Imagine phase to brainstorm possible solutions including written descriptions, computer generated sketches, and necessary materials. Teams members present and share their Engineeringideas to each other while going through a narrowing process to select an agreed upon solution to their design question. During the Plan phase, design teams use Google Draw to create multi-view blueprints of their design prototype. The Imagine and Plan phases serve as incremental steps toward the actual creation of a working prototype. Once completed, prototypes are tested, redesigned, and tested again during the Improve phase to assess their ability to meet design requirements and satisfactorily serve as solutions to the initial questions posed by each team. While the entire cycle of the engineering design process is best described as an exercise in project based learning, unexpected challenges along the way faced by design teams provide learners with rich and authentic impromptu lessons in problem based learning. Prototypes, supporting work, and reflective learning journeys are presented to a wider audience through classroom presentations, digital images, videos, and public displays.

Essential Problems for Essential Questions

At the core of project based and problem based learning is a desire to move students away from confined learning experiences that offer little in terms of developing contextually authentic critical thinking skills. It’s hard to expect young learners to develop into skilled problem solvers when they routinely follow rote processes to arrive at solutions that poorly represent the world they will live in and work. After reading the article by Jonathan Shaw titled Rethinking the Medical Curriculum from the Harvard Magazine, one’s imagination does not have to go too far in understanding today’s imperative for change in teaching pedagogy. Change, however, is massively slow and for many institutions and individuals not easy. Even in mathematics, a discipline literally defined by problem solving, creating PBL based learning environments can be an incredibly daunting task when teachers lack the necessary training, experience or subject knowledge. Author Kyeong Ha Roh identifies many of the challenges faced by mathematics teachers in his article Problem Based Learning in Mathematics.

Leveraging appropriate uses of technology is one way that teachers can create PBL-friendly learning environments. Technology allows for the access and sharing of exponentially growing amounts of information dealing with real-world problems that create learning opportunities across a wide-range of learning disciplines. Revisiting the mindset in which educators approach lesson planning may also assist in moving toward a problem-based learning landscape. Lesson design models including Understanding by Design suggest determining a set of essential questions early in the planning process. Given the realities of necessary 21st century learning and work skills, maybe it would be more appropriate to identify essential questions as essential problems instead?

Help Us Mr. Newton

For teachers, administrators, schools, and communities, one of the greater questions that needs to be addressed and successfully answered is what sort of forces are necessary to bring about the changes necessary to prepare students for authentic 21st century life experiences? One thing is certain, change can’t happen at the pace described earlier between the learning and career experiences shared by Lindsey and me. Ultimately, if educators, especially at the K-12 level, don’t identify, institute, and manage the changes necessary to prepare students to be skilled critical thinkers and problem solvers, other unbalanced forces will at a cost to our institutions of higher education and industry within the public and private sectors.

Two Yardsticks – One Goal

A Mirror Reflection? 

By Peter Frank, Österreich (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

I read an article recently from the technology publication Meridian by Brenda Dyck titled When Technology Integration Goes to Math Class. It made me ponder my own professional development, understanding, and integration of technology in the mathematics classroom. Dyck describes the linear sequential nature of learning mathematics and the teachers the content area seems to attract. Moreover, she mentions a phenomena that I have heard and read about for years. Teachers of mathematics tend to use the same teacher-centric methods they experienced as students years before. Am I a mirror reflection of my own learning environment as a young math student? I started teaching a couple of years prior to the dot-com boom and learned topics in elementary and secondary mathematics long before the common use of technology of any sort in the classroom. In fact the closest thing I saw regarding technology as a high school student was something similar to the Texas Instruments TI-30 Scientific Calculator. My own students today use a descendant of the same calculator, namely the TI-30X-IIS pictured on the right. Interestingly, to promote the understanding of certain operations and algorithms, we don’t allow the use of calculators for approximately half of the school year in 7th grade math. Fortunately, due to a genuine personal interest in constantly rethinking, reinventing, and re-purposing my teaching practices along with employment opportunities in schools flush with financial and material resources, my ability to integrate technology as an effective learning resource has grown considerably since my first years as a teacher in the mid-1990’s. However, by what measure? Until now, I have never taken the time to assess my own technology integration practices against any sort of standard.

Yardsticks to Measure With – The SAMR Model

One model of technology integration that provides educators with a framework to implement powerful uses of technology resources in schools and classrooms is the SAMR model created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura. The model is explained below by one of my favorite 21st century educators and bloggers, John Spencer.

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If someone were to ask me to pick apart and analyze a single activity or project within a larger unit of study, the SAMR model would be preferred method of choice. The enhancement and transformation levels of the model provide concrete pathways, namely substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition that ultimately lead to the full realization of technology integration. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) offers the following description of effective technology integration:

Effective integration of technology is achieved when students are able to select technology tools to help them obtain information in a timely manner, analyze and synthesize the information, and present it professionally. The technology should become an integral part of how the classroom functions—as accessible as all other classroom tools. The focus in each lesson or unit is the curriculum outcome, not the technology.

Reading this description, it’s pretty hard not to notice the words select, analyze and synthesize. These words come right out of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Select in this case would, in my opinion, include the evaluation and selection of appropriate technology resources to perform a given task. Given the structure of the SAMR model and Bloom’s Taxonomy, there would seem to be a close connection between the two. In fact, in a post from Common Sense Graphite in 2014, Dr. Puentedura identifies benefits of coupling the SAMR model and Bloom’s Taxonomy together. He states, “The already-familiar drive to reach the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy now also acts as a drive to reach the upper levels of SAMR.”

Yardsticks to Measure With – The TPACK Model

A much broader technology integration model available to educators is the TPACK (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge) model. As the name implies, it focuses on the knowledge required to successfully integrate technology resources in the learning environment. International educator and technology specialist Cris Turple provides and excellent and very teacher-friendly explanation of this model in the video below.

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What I especially like about Cris’s breakdown and explanation of TPACK is that achieving the intersection of technological, pedagogical, and content knowledge is not a single individual’s responsibility or goal but rather a collaborative effort made between IT specialists, administrators, and teachers that also relies on the existence of a supportive personal learning network (PLN). Given this view of the TPACK model, I would not think it to be appropriate for the self-assessment of one’s own practice of technology integration. The SAMR and TPACK models strive for successful technology integration as defined by the International Society for Technology in Education standards. Both ultimately envision students interacting with technology in ways that would be impossible without the successful integration of resources and knowledge. The latter, however, is a more systems based model while the former lives directly within the day-to-day planning, teaching, and learning that takes place in the classrooms.

Reflections on Working in an Intersection 

Assessing my own practices requires a brief description of who and what I teach. Most of my teaching career has been spent in the middle and high school math classroom although I have worked briefly in administration and as an intervention specialist. In my home state of Minnesota in the United States, I am also licensed to teach full-time grades 7-12 German. My last two years of employment included opportunities to teach 7th grade math and science in an international school setting at Taipei American School. Certainly I have had ample time over the past 20 years to grow in my ability to integrate technology in my teaching practice.

I am fortunate to work in what I would consider to be the intersection of the TPACK model. My students are very fortunate to learn in a 1-to-1 tablet environment which offers me massive amounts of opportunities to explore with and implement a vast array of web-based learning resources. Our institution is well-funded and effectively managed so that technology related professional development and support are always readily available through our school’s administration and IT support offices. Our school is full of visionary leaders and classroom practitioners, and we have virtually no constraints that would interfere with our collective ability to reach the highest levels of the SAMR or TPACK models.

Flickr photo by dcmaster shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license.

In the classroom my students work seamlessly with technology on a daily basis at all levels of SAMR. At the enhancement level, my math students take notes and complete all homework with a stylus on their tablets using Microsoft OneNote. They use web-based applications such as Geogebra and Google Sketch Up to explore the concept of similarity and to draw highly complex three-dimensional composite figures. They participate in classroom Google Communities at the transformation level and create, share, and assess self-made screencasts modeling learned concepts in pre-algebra. My science students similarly engage with technology at the same levels including interacting on a day-to-day basis with our Google Classroom. They collaborate, share, and communicate using a wide variety of Google documents in small group lab settings including complex engineering design units requiring the use of a web-based technical drawings, data sharing applications, and simulations.

I consider any level of technology integration with my students to be relevant and important to the learning process. Each activity has its own place in moving my students toward higher levels of the SAMR model and Bloom’s Taxonomy. Each activity moves students farther away from teacher-centric learning experiences. On the other hand, there are other instances that no amount of technology integration will ever replace. These examples include measuring and drawing angles with traditional tools such as the protractor and straightedge to help meet the needs of tactile learners while developing a sense spatial reasoning.

Since my first days in a classroom some 20 years ago, I feel as if I have grown considerably in my understanding and implementation of technology integration. I feel confident enough to be able to define and defend my own views on teaching pedagogy and subject area content as they relate to education technology. Yet, I am wise enough at this point of my life to know that I am not done learning for there is always room to grow.