Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Importance of Curiosity

In recent days I have seen two different blog posts discussing the virtues of ‘curiosity’. Check them out here and here.

The Ministry of Education issued a research monograph entitled “Getting Started with Student Inquiry” which is a great starting point to the conversation on how we can use student questions and curiosity to shape their learning.

If the belief outlined in the monograph is “that greater student engagement leads to greater student achievement (Cummins, et al.,2005; Flessa et al., 2010; Leithwood, McAdie, Bascia, & Rodrigue, 2006; Willms, Friesen, & Milton, 2009)” and “that students are more likely to develop as engaged, self-directed learners in inquiry-based classrooms (Jang, Reeve & Deci, 2010; NCREL online)” then the question to the teacher becomes “What are you doing to foster student curiosity?” and “How are you creating a learning environment where students can pursue answers to their own questions?”. Even with our curriculum as a framework within which this exists, doesn’t it just make sense to explore the things within a topic that the students are curious about?

To extend this further into my own area of interest, I am ‘curious’ (wow, it is contagious!) about how teachers are using technology to support student inquiry and the ways in which teachers are utilizing technology to provoke student curiosity.

I am wondering (another word for curious!) about the role of media and current events in this context. We just had a major natural disaster on the east coast. Surely students are curious about this. Surely we can fit this easily into our work? How about the students that are wondering how and why these things happen investigate that and write a report to the class, or create a documentary, or create newspaper/TV reports? How about those who are wondering about the victims of this disaster create persuasive texts/public service announcements on how and why we should be helping those impacted. How about when we look at the volume of water flooding the streets we develop a math investigation (“How long would it take one tap in your house to produce this much water?”). The possibilities are endless. They are all within the confines of our curriculum, and they all come from the students innate curiosities about the world around them.

I remember teaching in London, England, in September 2001. My wife is Canadian and also taught at the school. A week after the terror attack on New York, a nine-year-old student approached us with $5 in US money that he and his mother had converted at the bank from his £2 pocket money. He wanted to know if next time we went back to North America if we could make sure that we gave his money to the families in need.

The student curiosity is there. As educators we need to tap into this rather than deciding ourselves exactly how and when we will deliver the curriculum. We need to structure the learning in the class around the students curiosity. We need to think less about how concepts are taught and more about how they are learned.



iPad Speech Recognition vs Dragon App?

I spent some time this morning working with a school on how they are using their iPads. In the course of the conversation, we discussed the ‘Speech Recognition‘ capabilities of the new iPads (third generation and mini). I personally have used this feature often and with a lot of success for a variety of purposes. If you haven’t used it yet, test it out.

We asked a student to come in and test it for us. After the third accurate sentence the student read, he declared, “This is way better than Dragon. I can only get three words right on that’.

Who has been using this feature? How does it compare to ‘Dragon’ in your experience? What are some of the considerations (I am already thinking of implications on SEA equipment and EQAO accommodations that this could cause) when using this instead of Dragon? Are there other ‘Speech to Text’ apps that are superior to both of these?

TLLP at John Campbell

A few weeks ago I was invited to meet with a group of four teachers at John Campbell P.S. to support them with their work using iPads as part of a Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP) Project, funded through the Ministry of Education.

I was excited today to be invited in for a movie screening hosted by the grade 2/3 class to showcase the trailers they created in iMovie.

The work was great and the students I spoke to were able to clearly articulate what they learned during the process.

Thanks for the invitation, Miss Rota! I am excited to see where your team takes this project next.

Using iPads to Support Communication in Math

When our schools were asked to identify their most urgent student learning need, many of them turned to the area of mathematics. Some were concerned with the students’ ability to solve problems, others with the students’ ability to comunicate their math thinking. Almost all of the schools indicated a desire to look, at least in a small way, at the ways they could use the technology in their schools to support student learning in these areas.

I have been working with several schools specifically to explore how iPads can be used to support students in increasing their capacity to communicate mathematical thinking and reasoning with clarity and precision. There were a few things that were established before we went to work on this:

– when we say ‘communicate’, what do we really mean?

– before we even think about adding technology, what do we believe about how students communicate, the foundation experiences needed to allow them to communicate, and the types of things we should be asking them to do that require this communication?

– if they can communicate their thinking articulately and with clear representation of their thoughts, but the math is wrong, did we succeed? The video below illustrates this trap beautifully!

The things that grew from this initial discussion were important. The students need a grasp of the math vocabulary being employed, they need to have computational strategies and an approach to solving math problems, they need to be engaged in purposeful and ongoing math-based dialogue with peers and the teacher, as well as the world around them. In some cases schools revised their “need” back to a problem-solving one, as they realized that the issue with the student communicating was that they had no idea why and how they had arrived at an answer in the first place!

Once we had established this common language, we could start to look at how the iPads we have in schools could support students in extending and deepening this learning beyond what they could do without technology (otherwise why bother with the technology).

The first app that became a vital part of this process was “Educreations“. For those unfamiliar with this app, it is a whiteboard app that allows the student to explain math thinking and their process, orally and with annotation. Ultimately it records the screen and allows the student to publish a finished explanation or tutorial online.

One of the things that made this successful was the publishing aspect. When students consider the teacher the audience to their work, there are certain things that they do not communicate, or communicate with clarity, as they know you were in the room and shared the experience. When the audience becomes one beyond the classroom, one who was not privy to the lesson and learning, the explanation of students becomes more precise and more considered.

The second immediate benefit of this app was in the reflection that students engaged in during the process. As they were required to break down their work and explain the steps they took, they engaged in metacognitive processes that allowed them to refine and improve on what they had done originally and adapt their strategies and methods accordingly. Educreations does not let you necessarily track this part, as the focus is on a clean end product, but it certainly promotes this type of thinking and behaviour in the students.

When reflecting on the types of math work we are asking the students to do, and inspired by the work of people such as Dan Meyer (see TEDtalk below), something that is clear is that students need to be able to apply math to everyday situations, or to contexts beyond the math lesson and classroom.

From this thought process, teachers are now working on how and where math fits in to other areas. Most have realized the benefit, when it comes to strengthening communication, of making explicit links between their language and math instruction and tasks. Specifically, teachers have reflected on the types of writing tasks they are asking students to do and looked at where math might fit (and in many cases they have incorporated Media Literacy expectations also). Some examples of how this has been done on the iPad include:

Little Bird Tales or Book Creator:

1. Students use this app to create a written/oral tutorial or explanation of how they solved a math problem. It serves a similar purpose to the ‘Educreations’ work mentioned previously.

2. Student apply their math work to a real-life narrative or situation. For example, a class studying the concept of rounding created stories in this app where two characters had a certain amount of money and were not sure if they could afford some of the goods in the store. The story took us through the conversation and allowed us to see the math thinking and logic applied to a real-life context.


Students used this story-telling app, which reinforces the elements and arc of a story, to again create fictional situations where math was needed to find a solution. One great example was of a pirate trying to figure out how much gold he had after x days at sea and how much that means he was stealing on an average day.

Strip Designer

Used the same way as described above but with a comic-strip format.

iMovie or Reel Director

Students used these apps to create video tutorials on how certain problems or concepts can be addressed. They also went beyond this to create interviews, newscasts or sketches where math and math related problems were the central issue.

We are just at the beginning of most of this work. There is still much to be done, but I am confident of few things.

-the students ability to communicate their mathematical thinking will be improved.

-the students will ‘see’ the math in the world around them.

-students will be engaged and motivated in the math classroom

– the technology is being used to do things that would not be possible (or as easy) without it.

What are some of the ways you are using technology to increase students’ ability to communicate in mathematics?


Today was a PA Day at GECDSB. This means that teachers across the system were engaged in professional learning with a focus on improving outcomes for the students that they teach. This is a valuable time for the teachers to learn together, collaborate, and gain a deeper understanding of some of the things they can do to support student learning.

Not being based in a school, my role on these days looks very different depending on the requests from our schools. Today I was fortunate enough to work at Centennial Central in Comber. This school wanted to spend some time exploring how they could use the new technology in the school to support student learning, particularly in the area of communicating in mathematics.

The school has purchased 11 iPads and 4 Apple TV units, to go with 6 projectors, three SmartBoards and two carts of laptops provided by the board. The SmartBoards and laptops are tools the teachers have used for a long time and are comfortable and confident with. The aims of today were:

– begin to use the iPad and gain more comfort/confidence with how they work

– create something using an iPad

– explore a small number of apps and concepts that could support the student learning need.

I am going to focus on the specifics of the apps in a later post, but for now wanted to write about the process we went through to build confidence.

Firstly, the group were introduced to the iMovie app. They were given an intentionally brief overview of the app and asked to work in small groups or teams. The challenge was to create a movie trailer promoting the school.

Th philosophy of this activity was that iMovie is a very intuitive app, and the learning curve is not a steep one. It was a chance to show that one of the great benefits of the iPad in student hands is how the various elements of the device (in this case the app, the camera and the microphone) are all so integrated. By the end of the activity, once the teachers saw the quality of the movies that they created, they would feel empowered and motivated to further explore the iPad. Along the way the challenge was obviously to think about “where would this fit in my classroom”.

By the end of the activity, the aims had been realized. The teachers had used the app and device with a purpose, and had learned for themselves how easy it was. They made connections to where and how they might use it with students (every year our assessment data indicates a board-wide weakness in summarizing and identifying main idea – both important elements of the trailer creation process). They felt the benefit of working together and started to create informal, school-based support networks that will help them as they transfer these skills into their classroom.

The whole experience reinforced a belief for me around PD for technology. As important as it is to have someone present who knows how to do these things, what is more important is that teachers have time to explore, a purpose for the exploration, and a context within which to apply their new knowledge. The foundation of this learning cannot be the “how” of technology usage, but the “why” and “when”.

Several groups consented to the sharing of their movies. A huge “thank-you” to those groups and a reminder to all not to take the productions too seriously. One of the strengths of this exercise was that it was completed in a fun and safe environment and the end product was never intended to be serious!