Saturday, December 19, 2015

Teachers Shouldn't Have to Pay Teachers

In a recent chat with some friends of mine, we somehow got onto the topic of the impact of sites like Teacher Pay Teachers. Let me emphasize that this post contains my personal opinions. Please keep this in mind as you read the rest of this post.

Just in case you missed it - this is only my opinion.

I'm not a fan of teacher revenue sites like Teachers Pay Teachers. I've had long conversations with friends, colleagues, and my parents about the subject, and I feel like I should just put it out there. Most of the problems I have with those types of sites are the same issues I have with traditional textbooks (although most teachers don't have the option to make textbook purchasing decisions).

The Problems:

1. Value

If you ask teacher to "pay to play," you better make sure that what they're buying adds value for students.

Asking teachers to "pay to play" is asking them to dip into their already-limited resources. Any time you ask for this, it has to be for something that has a big impact on student learning outcomes. Is the purchased, static content really going to add that much value? What about those schools who badly need access to resources of all kinds - are they included in this model? Anything that requires additional demands on those limited resources better bring a lot of value to the table.

2. Flexibility

Are your students the same, year after year? In my experience, each year has a unique combination of personalities, and an approach that worked really well with one group won't work with another. Student-centered classes don't do the same thing year-in and year-out. Maybe the steps look similar (define a problem, identify a potential solution, test the hypothesis, analyze the results, iterate), but the content will change each time.

Static PDFs don't reflect an understanding and focus on our students; they prevent collaboration and sharing.

Static content doesn't change. It's not flexible. It won't accommodate different students, different interests, or different circumstances. Educators need the ability to modify, adapt, and change things as needed - that's why teachers need continual professional development after all the training and experience we get when pursuing a degree and teaching certificate. When you get a static PDF, you can't remix, modify, or re-share.

3. Mindset

Truly digital learning involve building learning experiences that simply cannot exist without technology.

Sites that perpetuate worksheets aren't encouraging digital learning - they're promoting digitized learning. If an activity is simply another worksheet, it doesn't matter if kids are doing it on paper or on an iPad - it's still a low-level learning task. To move toward student-centered learning, we need to shift the way we look at learning. Instead of focusing solely on answers, ask students to explain their problem-solving process. This is a lot harder to do with a low-level activity.

4. Exploration

I want to thoroughly investigate something before I decide to spend money.

I like to mess around with things, and experiment. I want freedom to explore and test, but any time I have to pay for something, I feel like I'm stuck with my investment. I have no problem paying for a service that I use and that provides value (coincidentally, Wikipedia could use a hand), but I want to make sure it's valuable before I shell out any bucks. If you're hiding something great behind a pay wall, how many educators are going to miss it because they can't access it without paying?

So What's the Solution?

It's easy to identify problems. It's simple to be a nay-sayer. It's much more challenging to come up with solutions to problems.

The problem these types of sites try to solve is clear.

Many teachers don't make a lot of money, especially when salary figures are compared to the cost of living in the associated region. and many teachers put a lot of work into the resources they create, and feel they should be financially rewarded for providing resources. For all their investment (not just in creating resources for use in the classroom, but all the work involved in becoming a teacher in the first place), educators often aren't seeing the benefit. I agree. Please read that again - I agree that teachers should be compensated for creating and sharing resources.

I'll write that a third time, just in case. Teachers should get compensation for the resources they create and share. I have no problem with earning money from your own hard work - we all need to eat. But there are ways to earn money, while at the same time providing resources for free

Advertising revenue can compensate content creators, while at the same time making those resources freely available. Donations through PayPal or Patreon can allow your audience to support you if they so choose. I strongly believe that the more a community needs resources, the less likely they are to be able to afford to pay for them, and research tends to agree. An organization I admire (and that I try to mimic as much as I can) provides its work for free for everyone - it's part of their mandate.

I don't use advertising on my site, and I don't include it on my YouTube channel. It's a personal decision I've made, but the value is in having alternative revenue streams as an option. As a content creator, I have the ability to decide if I want to monetize my work, while at the same time keeping it free for my intended audience - educators, and ultimately, students.

Truly digital learning involve building learning experiences that simply cannot exist without technology.

Personally, I don't believe that the value of my work lies in how much I can charge for it. It doesn't even lie in having my name associated with it. The work I do is valuable if it can help students learn. The more accessible it is, the more valuable it is. By putting anything I do behind a pay wall, it loses value. You may not agree, but in my opinion, by asking teachers to take money out of their pocket for my work, I'm reducing the value of what I do.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Personal Growth Plan

I found this post buried in my drafts. I'm posting it here as I wrote it last year, followed by a reflection on what I've accomplished.

October 14th, 2014:

After a profoundly inspiring #cdnedchat, I decided that I need to adjust my personal growth plan. Rather than keeping it to myself, I feel like I should make it public. So in order to keep myself honest, I've decided to post my goals here, and outline how I plan to achieve them.

1. Publish an add-on

This is a pretty straightforward goal - by the end of the school year, I want to publish an add-on for Google Apps for Education to the add-on store. I know what I want it to do (but I'm not going to give it away here), and I know what I need to do to get it to work. There are several sub-goals in here that get more technical, but I'll just give a quick overview of what this goal entails:
1) Learn a couple of programming languages (jQuery and CSS) as well as continue learning JavaScript.
2) Manage passing information back and forth between the languages.
3) Get a version of the add-on that works for me, personally.
4) Build up the code so that it will work for all users without needing to get into anything too technical.
5) Understand how to pass information back and forth between different web services. (done)

2. Help other teachers

I want to make sure that I devote some of my time to helping other teachers with questions I can answer. I've had a lot of help along my journey in teaching, and I feel that it's important to help others in any way I can so they can grow and share as well. We're all in this journey of teaching and learning together, and we've all got something we can share.

3. Learn from other teachers

I'm pretty handy with technology, but there's always so much to learn. I want to make time to learn from other teachers. This is going to involve the following:
1) Actively listen and engage teachers when they're sharing their passion.
2) Recognize areas in which I can improve. There are a whole lot, so this one should be pretty easy.
3) Ask good questions. Questions that have long, complicated answers. Answers that I'll need to think about, practice, and then reengage with others to continue learning.

4. #CdnEdChat

This one's pretty obvious - I want to continue to support and engage in the #cdnedchat twitter chat every Monday. There are a couple that I know I won't be able to make it to, but I promise to make a strong effort every week to attend, to share, and to listen and respond to ideas from others.

Monday, November 30, 2015

We're Not Really Talking About Digital Citizenship

“The problem with Digital Citizenship is that we’re not talking about the same thing.” 

Image: Common Sense Media
Many of the resources that are available for teaching digital citizenship are fantastic, but don't cover the whole concept. They're a great starting point, but they don't cover the whole topic. One of the better set of resources is available from Common Sense Media. Their Digital Citizenship curriculum covers more than just safety and security online, which is certainly important, but it’s only one aspect of digital citizenship.

“So what does it actually mean?”

Whenever we talk about a concept, it’s important the the whole group is working from the same definition. A concept like digital citizenship is big, complex, and can mean something different for each person involved in a discussion. You can search for a definition, but there’s a lot of variation.

 Before meeting Tanya Avrith, I didn’t really know what digital citizenship was. I thought I knew, but my understanding was missing a lot of important stuff. I consider myself lucky to call Tanya a friend, and she’s been responsible for helping me go beyond what I’ve read, and think deeply about my own experience as a digital citizen.

Digital citizenship involves a set of ideas, behaviours, and principles that guide a person’s interactions with resources and other individuals in a digital context.


An analogy I particularly like is the “vaccination approach.” We give students a one-time lesson about digital citizenship, then move on to the “real” learning.

This is wrong on many levels, and I’ll take a shot at listing them here (get it?)

  1. Retention: students likely won’t retain a one-off lesson very well.
  2. Authenticity: we live in a world where the line between digital and face-to-face is getting more and more blurry. If we don’t have a classroom that reflects our students’ experience, it’s not an authentic learning space.
  3. Experience: as educators, we need to walk-the-walk if we’re going to talk-the-talk. That means we need to practice being digital citizens so we can teach from a position of understanding.
  4. Isolation: Digital citizenship isn’t a topic that exists on its own; it’s an integral part of reality. We need to teach it as an ongoing component of learning.

Here’s what Digital Citizenship means to me.

For my purposes, the best way to define digital citizenship is to explain what it looks like in action. There are four things a digital citizen does, and does well. They’re helpfully organized into the “4 Cs” of digital citizenship.


An individual needs to know how to consume information. This is more involved than just reading - there’s a whole skill set involved in being an effective consumer. Search literacy - the ability to leverage search tools and strategies to quickly locate relevant information - is a big part of this. We need to be effective consumers: to understand what resources are useful, and how to evaluate the source of information. This is an ongoing process of becoming a more effective learner. 

“Effective consumption tools enable students to focus deeply on educational content and examine in new and engaging ways.” 2


One of the best things about the internet is that it’s largely built by “us,” the consumer. Sure, there are a growing number of commercial sites out there, but I like to believe that it’s individuals and communities that are producing a lot of the content out there. Our students need to understand how to create: how to write, but also how to record video, the aesthetics of producing a slideshow, how to design a website, and how to consider the experience of their audience. The number of literacies involved in creation keep expanding as new opportunities for creation develop. Just look at some of the vines people have created to see how creation is changing as new tools emerge.

“When students are the ones creating, they have a deeper engagement and the learning lasts longer as it requires them to really think through the material to come up with ideas to express their understanding.” 2


Finding or making content is important, but just as important is the easily-overlooked ability to curate information. A critical skill in today’s world, curation is the practice of organizing information into a more usable form, a key to effective learning. There are many different strategies and tools available, but curation in any form is essential to being digitally literate.

“To be digitally literate, students must be able to organize and reflect on the content that they produce.” 2


It can be easy to forget that there are humans at the other “end” of the internet. Some of the most powerful examples of learning that I’ve come across involve human connections that wouldn’t be possible without technology. Connecting with others is a human fascination, and we can empower our students to have an impact on their world by encouraging connections with both experts and an audience. Technology is a tool that facilitates conversation, and we need to provide opportunities for our students to develop strong skills in developing and nurturing dialogue.

“Connecting students to the outside world  can be done by publishing their work to to the web, providing them with an authentic audience from whom they can receive effective and meaningful feedback.” 2

You never stop learning to be a digital citizen.

So why do I say that we’re not really talking about digital citizenship? Because if we are, then it’s an ongoing discussion. There’s no point where we can wash our hands and say “well, that’s it, my kids know how to be digital citizens.”

There’s no point where we can wash our hands and say
“Well, that’s it, my kids know how to be digital citizens.”

We’re all learning to be digital citizens, all the time. Unless you’re living without any technology (and if you’re reading this, that’s not the case), you’re always practicing how to be a digital citizen, in much the same way that by living as a part of a society, you’re practicing how to be a citizen. The society we’re in is defined less and less by geographical boundaries, and more often by the ways in which we choose to interact with others.

Let’s get our kids engaging in learning using tools that reinforce these concepts. I like to use another viral analogy, but this time in support of good digital citizenship practice. Instead of inoculating our students against the potential harm of going online, let’s infect them with the idea that any time they want to learn something, they’ve got tools at their disposal to help them find people and resources to help.

By making digital citizenship a core practice of how we teach, we can make effective learning go viral.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


I've been working on a post about community for a few weeks. During the course of the research and drafting, I was invited to join a community of educators who want to share. The timing couldn't have been better - I was thinking about the characteristics of a good community, right at the same time.

You can read the full post over at Maple Syrup Edu. I encourage you to check out the site, and to reach out if you'd like to contribute.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The More I Learn, the Less I Know

It's no secret that I love YouTube. Not just because I don't have a cable subscription, but because of how it has changed the way people think about learning. Want to know something new? Watch a lesson. Easy, fast, and it's free for users, while at the same time, content creators can earn money (what a great business model!)

One of the channels I love is Vsauce. Loads of great content, and I always feel smarter after I watch. Or do I feel dumber? This video is certainly worth watching in full, and I've embedded it at the bottom, but a couple of things stick out to me.

The less someone knows, the more they'll think they know.

First was the story about McArthur Wheeler. I haven't verified it, but it raises an interesting concept: the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Basically, the less an individual knows, the higher they tend to estimate their understanding. And I think that lends insight into my own experience.

The opposite is also true.

I'm good at learning. There, I said it. I love learning about things. I'm curious, and I follow that curiosity wherever it tends to lead (which is probably why I watch things like this video), and I think about what I'm learning. I enjoy it. There's a certain joy in finding things out. I freely admit that I'm really good at learning.Some of my friends tell me I'm really smart, but this makes me uncomfortable. I don't feel like I'm any smarter than anyone else - I just like to learn things, and I don't equate the two. The Dunning-Kruger effect may help explain how I feel.

Every time I learn something new, it leads to new questions, new potential avenues for learning, and new opportunities to explore. I'll never be able to follow all of them, and I lament those I miss as much as I pursue those that interest me.
There's a great summary near the end of the video. It goes a little like this:
"When it comes to understanding our world, knowing why is obsolesced by asking why. Knowing facts makes you 'bright,' but the equally quick - sometimes quicker - and most rewarding prize, is the dark. In admitting that you don't know everything, but that you'd like to know some of it."
This is why I'm an educator. Because I don't want my students to know facts. I want to make them hungry to know a little more.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

20% Awesome

Getting Inspired

At the Ottawa GAFE summit a couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of listening to +Kevin Brookhouser present his keynote about 20% time in the class. It was beautiful, inspiring, and heart-warming (I had tears in my eyes more than once during the talk).

I have freedom to choose what problem I'll learn how to solve.

If you're not familiar with the concept, 20% time (or genius hour, or whatever you want to call it) is the idea of asking students to create something that they're passionate about. They need to plan and implement their idea, and it has to make an impact. The student work was inspiring - they were able to make a huge impact on their world with the projects they dreamed up.

Sharing my Project

That was on a Sunday morning, and at the end of the day, I had the pleasure of presenting my own 20% time project. As part of my work with +Amplified IT, I have the freedom and flexibility to create my own projects. With one-fifth of my work time, I can pursue a project. It's not goof-off time: as with the student projects, it needs to have a clear goal, progress needs to be made each week, and in the end, it needs to have an impact.

What I Learned

I'm proud of my project - it solves a problem faced by many educators around the world, and offers functions that were previously impossible to automate. In creating it, I learned a whole lot about coding a functional user interface that doesn't look terrible, which was a piece of the puzzle I had been struggling with for the better part of a year.

My team doesn't necessarily understand how this program accomplishes its task, and that's okay: they don't need to. In fact, most of its users won't ever know how it works, which is actually a blessing, since there are some pretty horrible lines of code powering this thing. But what my team sees, and what they understand, is that there is so much value in these types of projects. It's not a tool that's being sold - we're not making money off this project - but I'm able to apply what I've learned to solve some pretty big challenges. And in the process, we've been able to make an impact for educators.

What I'll Do Next

I don't yet know what my next project will be. That's one of the freeing parts of having 20% time - I can get inspired to solve any particular problem I run into, or those that my friends face. I can also take inspiration from my PLN, and solve some problems they might face. Whatever I choose to do, there are a few key characteristics of my next project:

  1. I won't know how to solve it when I start. This is something that makes a project challenging. I'll understand the problem, but I won't understand the solution. I'll explore, try out ideas, and keep the ones that work while discarding those that don't.
  2. I'll fail more than once. If I were able to complete the project without any difficulty, then it's not really much of a challenge, is it? My next project needs to be something hard.
  3. I'll share it as much as possible. As part of my open-source approach, I'll want to share my project as much as possible. I do need to confront the economic reality of life (and I do need to eat, as well), but the investment of time and energy into my project will pay off in other ways, too.
  4. I'll take risks. Playing it safe isn't the point. I can work on something and ultimately have it fail. Learning from experience is the kind of success I'm after - whether my project turns out well or not.

20% time projects are about pushing the limits of my understanding.

20% time projects are about pushing the limits of my understanding. I enjoy the challenge, the risk, and the freedom to fail my way to success. Each project presents its own unique challenges and obstacles, but in meeting and accomplishing the goals I set out, I'm able to push myself as a learner. I'm thankful to have the opportunity to keep learning as part of my own professional practice. I'm sure that students who take on this challenge feel the same way.

Monday, September 28, 2015

To Block or Not to Block?

I love adblock for Chrome Browser. It sits in my extensions bar, quietly removing the noisy, irritating, or distracting ads from the sites I visit. But is that always a good thing? Is it even ethical?

About four years ago, I became a "cord-cutter" and stopped my cable subscription. As a result, I now have a list of great YouTube channels to which I subscribe. It's reduced the amount I pay per month, and improved the quality of what I do spend my time watching.

But those kind people don't do it for free. They're supported by the ads which YouTube places in their videos. And if I want to keep watching these shows without having to pay for them, then shouldn't I have to watch the ads that pay for the content creators to be able to do this full-time?

This is why I've disabled adblock from running on many of the sites I visit regularly. Not just YouTube, but other sites like Instructables or other community sites that rely on advertising revenue to pay for things like server costs, or as the main revenue stream for YouTubers. Sure, I don't really like the ads, but they play an important role in the new economy of media creation and sharing.

And for the shows I really like? I'll actually click the ads. Even if I'm not interested in what's being sold, I'll click once in a while, just to boost the revenue that the creators receive.

It seems fair to me, especially since I can contribute to their income without incurring any cost to myself. So consider disabling adblock on the sites you visit most often that are ad-supported. Or just let an ad play all the way through (pro tip: if you're really annoyed by ads, just do something else while it plays. Coffee, anyone?). I'm sure they'll appreciate it, and it's a small gesture that can help ensure great content stays free to us.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Being Uncomfortable is Essential

It's easy to stick with what you know. Stay in your comfort zone. Play it safe.

It's easy, but it's not helpful.

As educators, we need to be reminded constantly of how it feels to be in our students' place: learning new things that are often unexpected. We need to push ourselves to grow, because that's what we ask of our kids.

I'm not a gamer. I'm not a social butterfly. I write code for fun, and I find writing code to be one of the most challenging yet rewarding things I've ever put my hand to. I love creating things. Things that do other things are even more fun.

But they're not easy. If they were, I doubt they'd be as interesting. It's similar to how a game works: there's a challenge, and you've simply got to keep trying until you get there.

I fail all the time.

But when a challenging project finally works, it grows beyond what I envision. I don't let failure stop me from creating.

Don't let discomfort keep you from expanding your horizons. Because when you don't, your students won't, either.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Why I Don't Rehearse

The terror.

When I was younger, I was terrified of public speaking. I think like many adolescents, I was petrified to stand in front of a group of my peers and speak. I would shake, stutter, and was obviously uncomfortable whenever I had to perform in front of a group. I would rehearse, line-by-line, exactly what I wanted to do/say, and I would always draw a blank when the moment to speak arrived.

Image: Pixabay
The big turning point in my anxiety came during high school, when I performed in a jazz band. We had to improvise, on stage, and there was an entirely different preparation process. Instead of practicing, note by note, I had to take a different approach.

Of course, practice was fundamental, but it was a different kind of practice. The main music (known as the "head") had to be fluent - you couldn't think about it, it had to be a natural extension of what you do. The movements, chord progressions, and cues all needed to be second nature. Then, there was the matter of practicing scales. You had to know all the scales for each chord in the progression, and again, they had to be second nature.

Improvisation isn't just "making things up"

In essence, I had to establish a baseline of proficiency in the fundamentals. Once I had that, the improvisation, the pace, the movement from one note to the next, all came without conscious effort. I eventually reached a point where my brain knew what I could (and, more importantly, what I couldn't) do with my instrument. My muscles knew how to make happen what my brain wanted. It became less of a performance, and more of an experience. I began to ignore the crowd, and focus instead on my own process.

I've carried this lesson with me throughout my life. Any time I need to speak in public now (which is far more often than I'd ever imagined I would as a child), I follow this same process.

  1. Establish a plan. Know the material, the tool, the concept, or the core of what I'm going to be presenting. The only real way to do this is to invest the time and energy in learning it by doing.
  2. Build a solid foundation. In music, it was scales. In my career, it's personal philosophy and mission. I know what I believe, what I want to achieve, and what I feel is critical.
  3. Allow the experience to happen. I don't force it. If I feel like moving away from what I had anticipated covering, I do it. I don't allow a script to dictate with absolute authority what I will and will not do.
  4. Enjoy it. This one took a long time to learn. I still get nervous. I still shake sometimes. But instead of letting this stop me, I can now embrace it. I even share my nervousness with the people I'm presenting to. Just because I'm intimidated doesn't mean I can't have fun at the same time.
Rehearsal covers the first two elements well. It would let me establish a plan and foundation upon which to build. But it precludes the improvisational nature of public performance that I find exhilarating. I would spend more time thinking about the script than I would about the actual moment in which I was experiencing. I would, in effect, miss out on the experience.

Preparation and Rehearsal are not the same thing.

Don't get me wrong: I certainly spend time preparing. In fact, I prepare quite a lot. However, I don't worry about going "off-script" when a moment of inspiration strikes. I often move away from my prepared slides (and, in fact, I rarely make it to my final slide, since I enjoy finding a new way to reach my goals). I allow the moment, the crowd, the mood, and the room to determine what I do, just as much as I follow the plan. I never forget where I want to go, but how I get there is entirely dependent on the unique experience.
Image: Pixabay

It's not always a smashing success, certainly. But there are times when it ends up so much better than I had planned, that it's worth the risk. By focusing on myself, instead of my topic, I can present with integrity, authenticity, and enthusiasm. I'm sure I could do the same with a scripted presentation, but it wouldn't feel as natural to me.

And, in the end, I'm as much concerned with keeping my own passion afire as I am about igniting it in others.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Award or Recognition?

WARNING: This post contains abundant opinion not backed up by research or fact. It's just how I happen to feel.

On Twitter, I caught an interaction between Dean Shareski and Rafranz Davis, two educators whom I respect and admire. They were discussing the idea of awards, and how we simultaneously ask our students to ignore them while at the same time, celebrate them in popular culture.
I mentioned that recognition from someone I respect and admire would be so much more meaningful than an award from an organization that only focuses on awards as a business. Okay, I wasn't that erudite, but I only had 140 characters!

It got me thinking (which is why I admire those two so much): what is the value of each? What makes them important? Why do we emphasize recognition, and can we do it in a better way? Ultimately, my thinking brought me back to a theme central to my life. But I'm getting ahead of myself.


Young Artist Award
Image: Wikimedia Commons
They're public celebrations of achievement. They reach a wide audience. They bestow the recipient with prestige. But what makes them prestigious? There have been sites popping up, claiming to be awarding excellence in education, but with a more sinister motive: they want links to their website which will increase their advertising revenue. (I recently read a blog post about this topic, but can't find it. If you can provide a link, throw it in the comments so I can edit the post and include the info.) An award is as valuable as we make it, and no more than that. Its value is based on the perceived authority of the organization bestowing the award.


In the new economy of free exchange of ideas, recognition is a valuable asset that comes directly from your peers. Being recognized by the people you're helping as someone who can help is, in my opinion, a more satisfying feeling than receiving an award. Sure, it's not as flashy. You can't put it on the mantle. You can't throw a line in your email signature or badge your blog as "helpful person" (okay, maybe you can, but that's not really the point). Recognition comes from doing good work and being generous. This can be public, and to a wide audience, or it can just be among friends. The value doesn't come from the prestige, but instead comes from the positive change you've facilitated.


I see this as a difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Awards are something you aim to get. There's a competition - not everyone can win the award. It ranks us, puts us into a hierarchy where some are more valuable than others. Sure, there are good awards out there, and I certainly am interested in following some of the award-winning educators to learn from them. Awards aren't a bad thing. In my opinion, they're just not as valuable as recognition. Being recognized as a leader comes from working with people, not in front of them. 

The big difference comes back to a conversation I often have with my parents, about the way the intellectual economy works. It's different from a financial economy - our resources are not finite, and do not lower in value the more they are dispersed. Imagine an awards show that's more than three hours long - how valuable is the prize awarded twenty minutes into the show? Does anybody really watch with baited breath, waiting to find out who wins it? I certainly don't (although I'm sure there are those who do). As we bestow more and more awards, each reduces in its perceived value. If there were only one prize handed out, it would be the focus. As we increase the number of awards, each is worth less in our minds (which, I believe, is the only place an award's value matters).

However, recognition is a different thing altogether. As we share recognition, it becomes more valuable, not less. It actually increases in value the more we dispense it. This isn't always true, since we need to respect and admire those who are doing the recognizing, but in my experience, the people I admire recognize others, and I've always gained from that recognition. I find new people, new ideas, new connections, and they tend to be people who are looking to make things better. Being recognized is not something one sets out to do - it's a reaction to what they do. And as we give out recognition, it only gets better.

Why do we do what we do?

Are we looking to win? Are we excited to stand in front of a crowd, hold up our trophy, and thank them? Or are we looking to lift others up? Stand them up in front of a crowd and thank them? In my opinion, a great leader doesn't stand and get thanked - a great leader stands up and thanks those who have helped him (or her) get to where he (or she) is today.

I'm not a great leader. Not yet. But I have people who help me every day, and I try to give back. Not because I want an award, but because I want them to succeed. As educators, we are agents of change, and ultimately, if we do a great job, we will help our students grow, succeed, and help others. We can't all win awards, but ask anyone to tell you a story about a teacher who made a difference in their life, and they'll have one. Recognition isn't public, it isn't sexy, and it doesn't sell, but in my mind, it's far more valuable than any award I could ever win.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Because I Want To

Last week I asked +John Calvert if he could share how he created his advanced book review site. I wanted to get an idea of how to tackle putting together a summer reading list web page for the #CdnEdChat website, and his Education on Air session was an amazing start.

We had the hangout on air, and I learned some great features and one very simple solution to a problem I'd been solving the hard way. I was able to quickly get the basics sorted, using John's model to put together my own version, but I decided on a few features I wanted to incorporate.
Image: Wikimedia Commons


I showed my brother, who asked me a poignant question: "Why? Aren't there a bunch of sites out there that do this better?" It's true, there are, but that's not why I did it. I'm not interested in reinventing the wheel because I think I can do it better. I'm confident I can't. I did it for a simple reason.

Because I'm Curious.

I wanted to find out if I could. I wanted to solve all those little problems. I wanted to play with it, and see if I could make these tools, which are certainly not designed for this purpose, and aren't as powerful as a dedicated database platform, do what I want. It's the same reason I like to undo the screws and break the warranty sticker on things. I want to know how it works.

Do we ask our kids to be curious?

How much of an opportunity is there for our students to be encouraged, supported, and empowered to follow their own curiosity? Do we offer them the time and tools to really dive deep into a problem, explore possible solutions, and persist until they understand? Are we teaching our kids to follow their passion and learn, or are we teaching them that learning has nothing to do with passion or interest? I do this kind of work because I find it interesting. It's a challenge for me, and I enjoy it. I don't get things working exactly right, and it takes me a lot of time to solve those small problems, but I like solving them.

Are we showing our own children that life can be enjoyable when you build curiosity and persistence? Or are we building a culture where we expect others to take care of things for us, and where we're satisfied with things that are "good enough?" I hope not. 

Because "Good Enough" isn't good enough.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Hey #PLN, I Need Your Help

Here's an email I sent to the trusted tester group of the birdfeeder add-on:
Hi everyone,
tl;dr - I don't want your money, I just need you to click on a star one time.
So I've been hacking away, trying to figure out a work around to get Birdfeeder to work at a rate better than one-tweet-per-hour. This is the limit imposed by Google on how often an add-on can trigger. Suffice to say, it's not easy to get around!
I didn't anticipate this problem since the documentation isn't clear about my specific use case. The limits when I'm writing and testing code are less restrictive than those placed on the exact same code when it's used as an add-on.
This is where I need your help. I've submitted a feature request to allow users to create triggers in an add-on subject to the same restrictions placed on triggers in the script editor. If all that is gobbledegook to you, don't worry. To support my request, all you need to do is click on this link and star the issue. We can tell Google that we want this!
Thanks for helping me with this. It's been a huge disappointment to me that the add-on is practically useless.
In the meantime, you're still welcome to use Birdfeeder, but just make sure that you enter an interval of more than 60 minutes between tweets. I know, I know, what's the point? Well, you could put it out on social media that we want this restriction changed! :)
Thanks again,
I'd love to get your help on this. By clicking on the star, you can indicate to Google that this is something we want as a community. I'm still working on a hacked work-around, but it can't hurt to click on the star, right?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sixty Bucks for a Better Internet

Warning: there's a high level of technical hardware geek-speak in this post. Skip to the last section for the good stuff.

A bit of history

I've been using my old TP-Link TL-WR740N routers for about four years. Yes, I said routers, plural. Part of my home network involves having multiple access points so I can move from room to room and my devices will automatically switch to the signal with the best strength. This approach wasn't bad, and at about thirty bucks a piece when I bought them, it was a cost-effective means of putting together a reliable home network.

I use the DD-WRT open source router firmware on my devices, and it's incredibly powerful. All sorts of awesome settings and advanced features. That means I can have many routers (at one point I had as many routers as there are rooms in my apartment), using one main router to distribute IP addresses and network connections.

The Problem?

This is actually fewer networks than I usually see.
My apartment building is built with concrete walls. Great for structural integrity, but not so good for WiFi connections. Compounding that is the sheer number of WiFi networks competing for space. Think of it as rush hour - so many packets of information all competing for the same bandwidth operate in a similar fashion as cars competing for lane space. Even with my networks on the less popular channels, I was still getting slow connections.

I finally decided it was time to take action. My tech situation is different from when I purchased my old routers: I have many devices that support 5GHz WiFi now, so it was time to upgrade to better network hardware. There were a few things I wanted to check before I made any purchase:
  1. It has to be low cost. I wasn't interested in dropping a hundred bucks on a router just to see faster connections.
  2. It has to support DD-WRT. I've gotten accustomed to a certain level of control, and going back to stock firmware isn't an appealing option. This also ensures that it will work properly with my existing hardware.
  3. It has to be dual-band. Not all my devices support 5GHz, but to get to the area of the wireless spectrum with less traffic, it's gotta be 5GHz.
  4. The device needed to use the Atheros wireless chipset. Again, this was to ensure full network compatibility with my other hardware, but DD-WRT has some limits when run from the Broadcom chipset.

My New Device

I settled on another TP-Link device (since I've found they're really quite good, and very cheap), this time going with the WDR3600. A few factors influenced my decision, listed in order of importance.
  1. It was cheap, at around $60 CAD. 
  2. It supports DD-WRT. You can find out if yours does by visiting their router database.
  3. It got good reviews.

Protecting my Network with OpenDNS

One of the things I discovered during the flashing and setup process was that I can use the free OpenDNS Family Shield DNS servers to block access to inappropriate sites. This is a great feature, since my two children are starting to spend more time on devices. It was pretty easy to set up, and with the advanced control of the open source firmware I installed on my router, I can force all network traffic to use the filter. Check out instructions at this link.

The Result

My new network, all alone!
Faster, more reliable connections throughout my apartment. Secured access for my children. A bonus network-attached storage device I can access from anywhere in my local area network. The biggest hassle was remembering all the devices I needed to adjust to connect to the new network.

At the farthest point in my apartment from my new router, this is the signal strength. It's not bad, and with three concrete walls between the access point and my phone, I'm pretty happy with the result.

Next Steps

I still haven't shut down my previous network. I'm running two (actually, three) networks concurrently. I'll be tweaking settings here and there, and once it's exactly how I want, I'll shut down the old network. I also want to set up configuration for a guest access network, with restrictions on throughput, so when my friends come over I can share something with a less-complicated access key. I'll be able to turn it on and off at will, so when no guests are over, the network will be disabled.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Hey Teachers, We're Lying to Ourselves

There's a big problem in educational technology in most classrooms, and it's a problem we've created for ourselves as educators. It's not a problem in purchasing, or implementation, or anything like that. It's a problem in the way we look at technology.

By Martin Luff from Christchurch, New Zealand
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What we think:

When I talk to educators about technology, there's a recurring theme. We talk about getting kids to use technology safely. About getting them to understand how to interact online. We go on and on about how we need to make sure that we're doing the right thing in terms of their digital education. These are all good points, but they might be based on a false assumption.

Most educators tend to view "real life" and "digital" as two separate things. When I was young, this was actually true. Dial-up internet meant that a connection was relegated to one computer in the house (at least, one at a time), and the speed (or, more accurately, the lack of speed) meant that spending a lot of time on the web was an exercise in patience.

Things have obviously changed. Many people carry the internet with them in their pocket. Music, friends, photos, and answers to life's questions are right there, waiting to be accessed.

This, of course, doesn't take the digital divide into consideration. I certainly think we need to focus on mitigating it as much as possible, but that's a topic for another post.

What's wrong with how we think?

First, it's the false dichotomy we're imposing on our students, of life being divided into "real" and "digital" realms. These two things are not separate, distinct, or isolated. The truth is that our students live in a seamless blend of face-to-face and digital interaction, and to separate these two is not only unrealistic, it teaches students that we, as educators, don't really understand their lives.

Secondly, it's the binary existence we impose on students when we forbid the use of their typical digital behaviours to foster learning. Many of the policies in classrooms aim to forbid students from using their devices (e.g. cell phones), their networks of connections with others (e.g. Facebook, Instagram), and their avenues for personal expression (e.g. YouTube) as an opportunity to learn or to share their learning with the world.

What should we do about it?

Fortunately, there's a simple remedy for the reality rift. We need to stop imposing our own preconceptions on students, and let them see that how they live offers so many opportunities for learning. They should be encouraged to share what they've done in school with their online communities. They should be encouraged to take out their devices and use them as a tool for learning. They should be encouraged to expand their networks to include experts, visionaries, and thinkers. The world is shrinking, and they've got the tools at their disposal to connect with learners around the globe. We need to shift how we think, so they can shift their thinking. As educators, we need to have empathy for our students, understand their lives, and figure out how we can use that knowledge to help them expand their horizons.

Basically, we need to stop imposing this falsehood that learning happens when you've turned off your devices. The opposite should be true: great learning happens in concert with using your connections to discuss, share, and understand others.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why Teachers Need to Care About Workflow

This exact question came up in a #CdnEdChat a little while ago. I asked people to volunteer examples of their favourite workflow, and... cue the cricket noises.

So I went hunting for good examples of workflow in education. I mean, I know what it is, but how do I explain it in 140 characters? Solution: find an image that explains it. Problem: turns out, no one has made a graphic that illustrates education workflow. It's all about manufacturing.

The first job is to define workflow.

A workflow is the approach (techniques, tools and timeline) that we use to solve a problem or manage a task. That sounds complicated, but in actuality, we all use workflow every day. An example would be when I want to cook dinner: I need to ensure I have the materials (ingredients), tools (cookware), technique (cookbook or experience), and sufficient time. The more often we do something, the more natural the workflow becomes.

What about workflow in teaching?

The workflow I used when I started teaching was very different from what I use now. Back then, it was mostly about paper management and chasing after missing work. Create the material. Copy it for each student. Make a few extra copies for the kids who might lose it. Hand them out. Make sure every student puts his/her name on it. After they've had enough time, collect them. Organize them and check to see that I have every student's work. Chase after the students who forgot to hand it in. Read and correct. Hand them back. Students look at the grade, then the paper ends up at the bottom of their locker until June.

So why should you care?

Effective workflow is all about harnessing the power of the tools at our disposal to become more efficient. I believe that it's not about saving time (since we know that educators are more likely to work overtime more than any other industry). No, we're not going to be clocking out at 3:30. What we'll be able to do is better use our time, to understand students, differentiate to reach them more effectively, give them more detailed feedback more quickly... The list could go on (and might end up being an entire blog series in and of itself). Being better at the low-level thinking tasks frees up resources (mental and time) to spend on more impactful actions.

Where do I start?

Really, the way to start building an effective workflow is to think about what you're currently doing. Where are there holes? What's inefficient? Henry Ford revolutionized industry by finding ways to do the same thing in less time. Nikola Tesla found a way to use existing infrastructure to deliver power with less loss. From its roots in the railway industry and manufacturing, the concept of effective workflow management has grown to encompass a plethora of industries.

For me, the answers is obvious (possibly because I highlighted them in blue). We should start by finding ways to spend more time focusing on evaluating student progress while they're still working, and giving faster feedback so students can capitalize on their learning. You may have noticed a colour code up there. Red signifies tasks that take up more time than the value they provide, while green are relatively simple or provide a good payoff for the time they take.

The answer of where to start lies in what takes the most time. Here are a few examples of how I've approached the problem:

  1. Finding and refining great ideas from my network of brilliant educators.
  2. Building a shared space of resources so I can create, but I can also pull from a library of great work from friends and colleagues.
  3. Check on student progress by jumping into their Google Doc while they're still working, and adding a few comments.
  4. Using rubrics to give assessment that shows students what they did well, and what they should work on.
The list can go on and on. Basically, if there's a tool that can help things (and I tend to focus on Google Apps for Education, but you're welcome to use what you're comfortable with or interested in), use it. If it doesn't work, move on to something else. If it works well, find other tools that can connect or build on your workflow.

This has already turned into a long post, but I think it's a topic worth covering. Let me know in the comments if you want to read more, or what tools you find helpful in making managing and organization more efficient, so you can spend more time on learning and teaching.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Recipe for Learning

I actually made this.

Most of my friends don't get it.

I'm really not fussy about what I eat. I don't mean to say that they are, it's more like I have very little appreciation for fine cuisine. I drink instant coffee because it's convenient, and I avoid coffee shops. That's for a couple of reasons: they're expensive, and for a guy like me, the fine taste and careful preparation aren't appreciated.

On an intellectual level, I guess I can understand. I'm sure that fine food is an art form that can take a lifetime to master. It's certainly one that doesn't interest me.
Now with flavor!

If it were only myself that I had to feed, I'd probably be content with cans of bachelor chow. But I have two daughters, and I need to remember that it's very likely that they don't feel the same way.

So I cook. I make a lot of things from scratch, and I've learned quite a lot. But it's all rote learning. I have no understanding of what herbs go with which meats (or if that's even a thing). I don't read food blogs. I'm basically the antithesis of a foodie.

Now you're probably wondering what I'm rambling for, so I'll get to my point. For most people, learning math is probably somewhat like my journey of learning to cook. It started as something abstract and confusing, and it has ended up in a place where I often don't understand the results, or even have the ability to judge if they're good. My parents lament the fact that I don't have a refined palette, but for me, it's not much of a problem. At the same time, I lament the fact that many people don't possess a refined numerical palette.

They may be able to appreciate simple concepts, use basic components, and feel comfortable to a certain extent. But then, when it comes to more esoteric applications, more abstract scenarios, they're as taste-blind in numbers as I am in flavours. 

But I believe that while an individual's taste buds are likely a result of biology, one's mathematical ability is not so limited. I may never be able to detect the subtle difference between different aromas (since I often struggle with determining the difference between sweet and savoury). I think, though, that with a more effective approach to mathematics instruction, children can be encouraged to savour the beauty present in numbers, and in the way they describe our experience of the universe (or even that which is beyond our experience).

I'm encouraged that the Common Core Standards for Mathematics in the United States is a step towards this goal. If that thought leaves a bad taste in your mouth, feel free to post a comment.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The story most people miss

In a conversation with a friend recently, I got into the topic of math. Yes, it's not much of a surprise. I'm passionate about it.

What struck me was something she said about the graduate-level statistics she had taken. All she could recall about it was that it was stressful, and she had gotten through it by memorizing until she had finished the exam, then dumped everything from her brain.
Image: Cemagraphics

This is not unusual, and I think it's the biggest failing of our math education model. Our kids (and most of us as adults) never get to see the story that numbers can tell us. To me, the beauty of mathematics is in the picture it can reveal. To see it, you don't need to memorize a bunch of formulae. Just look them up when you need to; that's what I do.

To see the story behind the numbers, you need to understand the concepts they're describing. 

Standard deviation and confidence intervals aren't a bunch of meaningless calculations to be performed. They tell you about the phenomena they describe. They reveal patterns. They show what your gut is telling you (or if it's lying to you). Calculation without understanding is like putting letters in order without knowing what the words mean. Where's the value?

So why do we force ourselves to memorize math formulae? Are we more interested in developing the ability to calculate, or the ability to think? Is the proper assembly of letters the same as the ability to compose a story? Do we ask our musicians to be able to hit the high notes every time, or is it better to listen to a performance that evokes am emotion?

Don't get me wrong: calculation is critical to good math. But it isn't the whole of educating good mathematical thinkers. We need to develop the ability to interpret, understand, infer, and evaluate. How else will we grow as a society of critical thinkers who can understand our increasingly data-rich existence? I'm much more interested in getting a student to tell me what the numbers mean, rather than have them recite a formula. If you can just look it up online, is it really that crucial to memorize?
Critical thinking isn't something you can find with an internet search.

It's reminds me of the typing classes I had when I was in grade school. Were they teaching computing, or were they teaching how to operate buttons efficiently? I don't want to fill my classroom with button-pushers, or calculating machines, or any other type of operator.

I want button pushers and calculators who are thinking about the buttons they're pushing, the calculations they're performing, and what they actually mean.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Word of the Year

Many people use the start of a new year (whether it's the calendar year or the school year) to make a resolution. Something they want to focus on, improve, or change for the better. I think it's a great idea, but I've never liked that the scope had to be so limited.

Some of my friends from the Google Teacher Academy have proposed a one-word motivation for the year. I love this idea. It's broad enough that it can be applied over a long period of time, so it can remain central to me for an entire year.

+Christopher McGee gave a great talk about saying yes to opportunities that come your way. I've tried to do this over the course of my career, and it's been a great way to get accustomed to taking risks and seizing opportunity. I feel like I've got a handle on saying yes. It's now a gut reaction, when someone offers a chance for something new and interesting, I'll say yes. So while I love this idea, my focus this year won't be on saying yes. Not because I don't think it's valuable (quite the contrary, in fact). Mainly because I feel like I can do this already. It's not going to demand growth and risk on my part.

So I've decided on one word for this year. It will be the central principle behind what I do in work, what I do in my free time, and what I want to accomplish. An active word that I can think of as I attempt whatever I put my mind to.


I want to empower myself to make real change in the world. I want to empower my friends to do great things. I want to empower my colleagues to succeed.

I pledge to empower teachers to use technology effectively. I want to provide them with the knowledge and the mindset to do new things. I want them to feel empowered to make mistakes. I want them to feel that they can grow and share.