Wednesday, 29 July 2015

When is student collaboration simply a division of labour - and how can we avoid this?

As educators we are often told that collaboration is one of the key skills we need to instil in our learners. Collaboration is frequently referred to as a 21st century skill, although many educators might (rightly) argue that it is a skill that has been taught for many decades. I think one of the reasons that collaboration has come to be seen as a 21st century skill is partly because there are now so many tools available to foster collaboration among learners, both inside and outside of the classroom. However, what does collaboration in education really meanI have tried a number of ways to encourage and foster collaboration in my classes, and I have seen both 'good' examples of collaboration and 'bad' ones. I will describe the latter first, before going on to describe good examples of collaboration. 

Image designed by Gavin Keech via Venessa Miemis

'Bad' collaboration

When I refer to 'bad' collaboration I mean it in the sense that there is no shared learning experience taking place. In this case, collaboration often simply becomes a division of labour. Students work in groups, and instead of working together to solve problems or answer questions, they divide up the work between group members. Each student then works individually on their set of problems, and as a group, the complete set of problems gets solved. I have even seen a whole class create a Google Doc to work on a set of problems together! 

Even from a content or knowledge acquisition point of view, this approach tends to suggest a poor outcome for students, besides any questions around their learning. If they have only answered a subset of the problems, what happens when it comes to exam time? 

Obviously what I have outlined here are extreme examples, and often students will be discussing all of the questions or problems within their groups as they do their work. But I think that this is a valid problem, and one that I am still thinking of ways to avoid. 

'Good' collaboration

One of the better examples of 'good' collaboration I have seen was when I had students work in groups to create webpages. Some group members acted as researchers, finding relevant information online. Others acted as writers, putting the content into context and summarising the research. Students who were less interested in the topic itself, but who were interested in web design, took care of the web page design side of things. They even created an FAQs page to guide other groups in how to embed videos, change formatting etc. 

While this approach was successful from a project point of view, and afforded great student voice and choice, there is an obvious drawback. What happens to those students who were working on web design when they come to sit their biology exam? The exam is necessarily based more around biology content, and certainly not around web design. What I am essentially making the case for here is less summative exams and more competencies and skills-based assessment. In this way 'good' collaboration can be encouraged and developed.

Generally speaking, project based learning (PBL) can also be useful for promoting good collaborative work, and I have blogged previously about how I have attempted to incorporate elements of PBL into science projects that I am responsible for coordinating. Long-term, open-ended, group projects offer plenty of scope for learners to find their niche within the group, and to pursue their own particular interests within the context of their overall project goals. 


From a learners' point of view dividing up the labour may be good in the short-term, however, in the long-term this is not going to lead to a deeper learning experience, or necessarily be an enjoyable or memorable one. An engaging and effective activity that fosters genuine collaboration, on the other hand, could potentially lead to a deeper, richer understanding for all involved. 

I am still trying to figure out the best ways to incorporate and foster collaboration in my classes. As ever, any comments or suggestions are welcome. 

Monday, 20 July 2015

Reflections on teaching and learning during an urban biodiversity project

This semester my Grade 10 students conducted projects which contained a number of elements considered to be important for project based learning (PBL). In this post I will describe the various activities carried out by learners as part of these projects, along with reflections on how I implemented each activity. This will be followed by a summary of learners' own reflections on the projects. 

A screenshot of the front page created by students.

1. Driving question

The driving question for these projects was 'What biodiversity can we find around us, when we live in a large urban centre like Bangkok?' On reflection, next time I would spend longer having students developing their own driving questions related to the theme of urban biodiversity. In this way learners would have more voice and choice over the direction their project took. 

2. Opening event

Groups of students were asked to take photos of various wildlife that they spotted around Bangkok. Back in class the following week, I asked learners to upload their photos to the biodiversity monitoring website Project Noah. I have blogged previously about how Project Noah is a great way to introduce learners to citizen science. This was the opening event for these projects, and aimed to give learners a sense of how their own photos and observations may be used to inform real-world science. 

An example of Bangkok's biodiversity.

3. Creating authentic products

In order for learners to exercise some creativity, and make good use of the photos they had taken, I asked for each group to create a web page for their photos within Google Sites. This was also where students were able to reinforce what we had been learning in class about scientific naming and classification of organisms, habitats, and community interactions. 

Additionally, I asked each group of students to create a video based on their observations and photos. They had a choice of approaches here: a series of their photos put together as a movie, a filmed piece to camera, a video with a voiceover etc. These videos were then posted to YouTube (for example here), and so represent an authentic, public product.

5. Learners' reflections

At the end of the project I wanted students to have the opportunity to reflect on their learning throughout the projects. This would also act as feedback for me, affording me insights into what could be improved about the projects in future. These reflections were recorded by having students complete a questionnaire created using a Google Form.

All but one student (27/28) completed the reflections questionnaire. 25/27 students responded that they had learned something new about biodiversity in Bangkok. Many students expressed surprise at the range of biodiversity they discovered in and around Bangkok. 

A number of students expressed the opinion that going out finding wildlife of which to take photos of was fun, not boring, and in the words of one student '(felt) free, not like doing work'. Some students enjoyed making the videos, while others stated that they enjoyed putting their web pages together. 

When asked what was the most important thing they learned from the projects, many students noted that they had learned a lot about biodiversity and the relationships between living things. Other students highlighted team working skills as an important aspect they had learned from the projects. Some students talked about specific technical skills they had learned, such as building web pages and editing videos. 

When asked what they would change about the project, many learners responded that they wouldn't change anything. A few students suggested that there may be better options than Google Sites for building the web pages, since it is somewhat limited in the choices available. A couple of students also noted technical difficulties when it came to making the videos. 


My own personal feeling about these projects is that they were successful in many respects, most importantly that the majority of students felt that they had learned something new from them. I think next time I would spend longer in the driving question development phase, giving students more opportunity to have their input. Also, I would consider ways to give learners more say in the choice of what their final product should be. I still like the idea of having a website so that the whole group can collate their work in one place, but within that there could be a wider range of ways to display their findings. 

I would be interested to hear other views on these projects, along with suggestions for improving them. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Five reasons I like Google Classroom

This semester I have been trialling Google Classroom for the first time. I've rolled it out for the basic biology course I teach with my Grade 10 students. I'm still using Moodle as the primary LMS for this course, but instead of having students return assignments via Moodle I'm now using Classroom as the primary productivity platform. Not surprisingly there has been a bit of a learning curve for both myself and my learners. However, there are a number of features - pedagogically, administratively, and aesthetically - that Classroom offers which I really like, and I will outline here. 

1. Fostering collaboration

Google Classroom integrates seamlessly with Google Apps productivity tools such as Docs and Sheets. This means learners can work on shared documents with each other in real-time, whether they are sitting on opposite sides of the classroom or in their rooms at home. What's great to see is learners finding out for themselves what works for them when using these kinds of collaborative tools. For example, whilst working on one assignment, I observed one student rapidly typing an answer in Thai into a shared document, while on the other side of the room another member of her group was industriously translating and typing the answer in English. 

2. Rapid feedback to learners

The speed and ease with which I can provide feedback on learners' assignments is a really big advantage afforded by Classroom. While students are working on their assignments in a shared Doc they have all ownership and editing permissions for that Doc. Once they submit their work, however, ownership permissions are transferred to me, at which point I can add feedback directly into their Doc. Once I have finished checking all of their assignments, I simply click to return all work and the permissions switch back to the students. This kind of rapid feedback provides a lot of scope for effective formative assessment. 

3. Easily keep track of student work

Classroom makes it incredibly easy to keep track of student work. When assignments are created within Classroom, folders are automatically created and named, and all assignments are saved in these folders. There is no longer any need for piles of reports on your desk, or an inbox overflowing with assignments submitted via email. This paperless aspect of Google Classroom is another very attractive feature. Depending on how assignments are organised and distributed, Classroom also offers scope for creating digital portfolios for students in a single, easy to locate place. 

4. Students like it

I haven't yet had chance to formally evaluate my students' opinions on their use of Classroom. However, my observations so far suggest that they enjoy using it. They have submitted a number of assignments now, and I have not heard any negative comments regarding it. This is despite, as I mentioned earlier, there being a bit of a learning curve, and some technical issues. For example, there were a few difficulties early on with students creating documents outside of Classroom, then uploading them when they were complete. This causes slight problems with the naming and storing of these files, and also with the transfer of ownership between learner and teacher. However, I think this was mainly due to unclear instructions from me as to how they should go about this, it being a new system for me as well. 

5. It looks good

Lastly, Google Classroom just looks really cool! It has a very clear and straightforward interface and, up to a point, it can be customised and individualised, for example by adding your own photos to the top of the page. While this may seem less important in terms of learning, I think it does actually matter to learners if what they are looking at and navigating is aesthetically pleasing. 


So, to summarise, I feel that Google Classroom is a useful tool for both learners and teachers. It offers important pedagogical features, such as facilitating collaboration, and enabling the rapid feedback which is so essential for effective formative assessment. It provides teachers with a great way to organise students' work, and the potential for digital portfolios. Learners appear to like it and have taken to it quickly, and as an added bonus it looks good. The next step will be to roll it out for my other classes.

If anyone would like to share how they are using Google Classroom, I'd love to hear about it!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

What should a teacher do if they don't like parts of their curriculum?

This post was originally inspired by an email conversation with @GuardianTeach earlier this week, about a high school English teacher who said she no longer wanted to teach Shakespeare because she felt it wasn't relevant to her students. Also, she happened personally not to like Shakespeare. I found this latter point more disturbing; considering what is or isn't relevant for our learners is one thing, but picking and choosing curriculum based on our personal preferences is quite another. The teacher's original comments can be found on the Washington Post's The Answer Sheet blog here. There is a response by the blog's editor here, which I find myself more in agreement with. 

Any teacher will naturally have some sections of their curriculum that they prefer over others. They will also have opinions as to which aspects of their curriculum are more relevant, and those that are less relevant to learners' lives. These opinions, however, may be based on assumptions about learners which turn out to be incorrect. There are also different preferences among learners from year to year. 

As a biology teacher my curriculum encompasses a wide range of topics. Do I like them all equally? No. Do I feel that they are equally relevant to all of my students? No. For example, the thorny issue of teaching botany. (Who said plants aren't fun!) I personally find plants fascinating, but in my experience many learners don't see plants as being particularly relevant to their daily lives. This is not helped by a curriculum which demands a detailed knowledge of the intricate aspects of the reproductive strategies of the four major plant groups (non-vascular, seedless vascular, gymnosperms, and angiosperms). Then there are the pages and pages of dry details about each of the various plant phyla. In a pre-Google world maybe it was worth memorising these discrete facts - it isn't anymore. These sections of the course could usefully be done away with. Fundamental processes on the other hand, such as photosynthesis and transpiration, play an important role in cultivating an understanding of how the natural world operates, and these should remain as part of a high school biology course. 

Many educators will agree that curricula around the world are in need of, or are already undergoing, change to make them more relevant to the current generation of learners. This is clearly a step in the right direction. I would happily see several chunks removed from my curriculum, even those sections that I prefer, if it would give more time and space to what was really useful and relevant to today's learners. However, I don't think that can necessarily be achieved simply by jettisoning what we ourselves happen not to like.  

It is up to us as educators to try to find ways to make a topic relevant. This could be by extending learner voice and choice, or by tackling current issues such as genetically modified crops. What this does not mean, though, is that we should be simply dropping those topics we don't like from the curriculum, using as a smokescreen the argument that they are not relevant for our learners. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Mastering academic writing with EALs via formative assessment

I recently wrote about an extended piece of scientific writing I assign to my Grade 12 biology students. This is to be a fully cited and referenced piece, and in order to guide my students I set them a small number of brief pre-essay formative assessments relating to paraphrasing, summarising, and how to correctly use a consistent style (e.g. APA) for in-text citations and reference lists. Since these are formative assessments, and therefore assessments for learning, I check them and provide feedback but do not grade them, although students do get credit for participation.

One of the recurring problems for my learners when looking at author lists for their citations is determining an author's family name. This sounds like it should be straightforward, except that in Thai culture the family name is very rarely used, except in very formal situations. While someone's given first name is used slightly more commonly, it again is generally used in more formal situations. Mostly, people go by their ชื่เล่น (chu len), or nickname. This does somewhat simplify things in most day-to-day interactions, because Thai official names can be very long. For example, someone called Chattamachode Krassanairasuriwongse may go simply by the nickname 'P'! But it does bring me back to my original point - that Thais can find it difficult to correctly ascertain a Western author's family name when writing their citations and references. Carrying out formative assessment is a great way to identify these problems and provide learners with rapid feedback about where they are going wrong. 

Paraphrasing and summarising academic writing can prove difficult for many learners, but may present EALs with a much bigger challenge. Although there is some evidence to suggest that EALS can have an advantage when it comes to certain linguistic skills, there are some difficult challenges to overcome when learners' first language is so very different, and this is compounded in this case with the use of academic English. My students are often shocked when I point out that when writing literature reviews, authors must summarise entire research papers in a couple of lines. Again, I am hoping that by having learners engage in these formative assessment tasks they will gain a much clearer understanding of what is required for their final essay task.

A big help this year in providing timely feedback for learners came from using Google Classroom. This allowed me to distribute the formative assessments to students easily, and to then provide direct comments in their text and where they made errors. What I am also able to do, which was more difficult when using our previous LMS, Moodle, is to offer students the option to share their early drafts with me. This will allow me to give them real-time feedback on the development of their essay. Obviously I will not be re-writing their work for them, but I would like to scaffold them to achieve a level of mastery in academic writing, which will be more feasible with this kind of ongoing support. I will be interested to see how this approach affects the essays which get submitted at the end of the semester.