Tag Archives: History

Think like a Historian: The Intellectual Operations Master Kit

Dan Hedges is a Social Science consultant at the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board.   

CC BY 2.0 photo credit: Fox Wu 2006

I’m outing myself as a nerd here, but I’m sincerely excited to describe a  student centered learning tool that has lately culminated into a perfect storm with many of the Social Science teachers that I work with around Quebec: the Intellectual Operations Master Kit.

Intellectual Operations in the curriculum

First, some context. The Intellectual Operations in social science are a series of skills that allow students to think like a social scientist. According to the new History program: “The evaluation of learning focuses on the acquisition of knowledge, the performance of intellectual operations (that is, know-how related to the key features of the competencies), and the application of the competencies”. As you can see, knowledge alone is not enough. Students need to know how to contextualize, how to compare and how to synthesize knowledge – this is where the intellectual operations come in.

The Intellectual Operations Master Kit

The Intellectual Operations Master Kit is a complex graphic organizer with moveable parts.  The kit, and all of the shapes included in it, is a physical kit designed to be printed out and laminated. Students, working in small groups, can use the kit to physically ‘map out’ a historical event in order to:

  • work out its causes and consequences
  • establish facts for the historical event in question
  • identify elements of continuity and change
  • solidify concepts
  • timeline important turning points.  

The kit allows students to use intellectual operations to develop their historical thinking.   The whole kit is colour-coded according to five aspects: political, territorial, scientific, social and cultural.  A legend is used to see which colours represent which aspect.  For example, a blue square represents a ‘territorial fact’ and a yellow circle represents a ‘political cause’.  

Piloting the Kit

As I stated earlier, I’m in the middle of a perfect storm with the Intellectual Operations Master Kit. That perfect storm is occurring because of praxis, which is the bridge that connects theory with practise.  The momentum that I feel moving ahead with the Kit comes from avoiding isolation.  It comes from co-planning, co-teaching, and co-reflecting, and, ultimately, with feeding forward the various insights from teachers and students, each time the tool is implemented.  Basically, the theoretical and research-based ideas behind the tool have to be ‘sobered up’ by actual classroom teaching. In other words, the theoretical underpinnings of the tool are only as good as the practical applications of the tool in real classrooms.

In terms of sticky learning and so called deep-learning, I am becoming very aware that the best learning in my life – and where the most lucid brain structures have been constructed – has been rooted in experiential learning.  For example, living in Spain for three months as a Grade 11 student has forged permanent brain structures for me that are accessible to this day.  Because they were multi-modal, my experiences in Spain back in the mid-90’s (I still have mix tapes from then…) are encoded so deeply that I literally cannot forget those places and times, even if I tried.   

As we can not always afford to bring our class to the Grand Canyon, or straight to the Louvre, we look for the next best thing in terms of making classroom experiences multi-modal, or multi-sensory, so that the conditions for sticky learning are present.  The research informs us that multi-modal encoding (and this is based on peer reviewed research…) leads to better brain recall later on (which means that ‘sticky’ or ‘deep learning’ has taken place).   

A quick experiment: bring to the surface one deep learning memory that you have from high school.  Ask yourself if  the encoding at the time of that memory was multi-sensory/multi-modal.  You can see the point of this mental exercise, as it relates to this discussion of deep learning!  

The hands on graphic organizers that are part of the Social Science Graphic Organizer Kit contain both visual as well as tactile components.  While this learning brought about by hands-on graphic organizers may not be as impactful as living in coastal Spain for three months, I am convinced that my recent successes with the graphic organizers has a lot to do with keeping ‘sticky learning’ at the forefront of my own pedagogical reflection.  

The Document Collections

In order to make effective use of the kit, students need access to  a document collection (these historical documents would encompass the types of historical documents that are utilized in typical MEES Document Based Questions). The document collection can be physical (such as a Jackdaw style, which is essentially a themed envelope that contains say 10-15 carefully selected historical documents) or it can be virtual (such as a collection of historical documents curated in a google folder or on a platform such as Padlet).

If a teacher decides to go with the physical historical document collection, here is one such way forward:

For the Jackdaw style,  each brown envelope is themed by topic, and the topics could be selected from the Precisions of Learning in the QEP.  Each brown envelope can contain anywhere from 10-20 historical documents, including historical texts, images, photographs, depictions of artifacts, maps, timelines, etc. When a small group of students opens the envelope, they discover historical documents, and then the student work of feeling like and acting like a historian can begin, where the students are now detectives of the past.

The Graphic Organizer Kit

Let’s address the graphic organizers and how they help students think like historians.

The graphic organizers included in the kit contain movable parts, which means that students are physically mapping out various colour-coded shapes; they are essentially co-constructing a historical ‘puzzle’, according the shapes (square are facts, circles are causes, and rectangules are consequences).

Here is a snapshot the Cause and Consequence Kit, which was designed primarly with High School student in mind (and which has been field tested now several times).  One needs to picture that all of the shapes are cut out individually (like puzzle pieces…)

The students, in small groups, are now ready to extract historical information from the document collection and then place that historical information onto the shapes of the graphic organizers kit.  

Here is one possible order which the students could work:

  1. Students (in small groups of 2 or 3) would start by placing the centerpiece (the historical event placement) in the center of their work space.   They will next need to understand that the SQAURES that represent FACTS are to be placed ONTO the HISTORICAL EVENT.Students will also need to understand that the circles (causes) will later get placed to the left of the historical event (since the cause precede the event) and that the rectangles (consequences) will get placed to the right of the Historical Event.
  2. Students will understand that everything in the KIT is color coded to represent the five aspects (economic, political, social, cultural, and territorial)  The colour coded system of the  kit is why the kit also contains a LEGEND.
  3. Students will open their document collections to begin to discover and explore the historical documents in the collection.
  4. The process of ‘establishing facts’ will happen procedurally before establishing causes and consequences.
  5. After the students have ‘established facts’ for the five aspects, using the SQUARES, they can then move onto establishing causes, and then onto establishing consequences.  The whole time, they will keep in mind the color system.  So, for example, they will understand that a green circle is an economic cause.
  6.  Depending on the historical event in question, the process of mapping out the event using the document collection as well as the graphic organizer kit can take one or several class periods, depending on the length of the classes.  In my experience, with implementing the kit at the secondary level, two full classes can easily be dedicated to students use of the Cause and Consequence kit when tackling a broad historical event.  


The tactile and visual nature of the task (making it multi-modal, and which leads to so called ‘sticky learning’ and better encoding), the student centered nature (students become the historical detectives!),  and the open-ended/inquiry-led process leads overall to a deep learning experience.  

Implemented and practiced as a routine throughout the year, students become more and more confident with how the Intellectual Operations work, and are able to ‘tackle’ document collections with historical rigor, which is implied with each of the Intellectual Operations. The kit is also a great formative tool for teachers to check where students are at in terms of constructing their cognitive schemas at any given juncture.

Working with the kit, students get to experience what it is like to DO HISTORY, not just memorize historical facts.   The Intellectual Operations Kits are one way of making the Intellectual Operations concrete and experiential.

If you have any logistical questions on how the kit could be implemented, please feel free to post a comment, or question.  

The kit can be accessed through the LEARN website here.

Further reading

Engelkamp, J. (1998). Memory for actions. Hove, England: Psychology Press.

LEARN – How to use the Intellectual Operations

Flipped History: A new approach for a new curriculum

flip3As you know, I’m piloting the new History of Quebec and Canada curriculum. In my previous post, History of Quebec and Canada – Planning for a new curriculum I discussed unit planning, learning intentions and planning for assessment.  After piloting for a month and a half, in this post I’d like to examine the teaching method that I’ve set up for my classes – the Flipped Classroom.

Flipped learning has become a trend in recent years.  There’s no shortage of material available online for those teachers looking to flip their classroom.  Before making this decision, I looked at both the advantages and disadvantages of flipping and I’ve found a method that works for me.

I found the article “Educators Evaluate ‘Flipped Classrooms’” from Education Week to be informative, and then I read the book Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day by Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann. I suggest that anyone who plans on embarking on this journey to read up as much as you can about it. According to a brief published by Educause,

“The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short video lectures are viewed by students at home before the class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects, or discussions.”

In this post, I’ve used a PMI format (Plus – Minus – Interesting) to organize my thoughts.


The biggest positive result that  I have with  flipping the classroom is that I have the time to talk to all of my students, every class, about their work.  As a result, we spend more time reading and more time writing than I had before I flipped.  The feedback that I can give students is immediate, and students have the time to work on their assignments.  

For example we’ve been working on the essential question, “How does geography affect settlement?” I began by asking them how do you write a paragraph?  They brought their prior knowledge from English language arts and from Sec II history and citizenship and we established a common set of criteria for the paragraph.  Then they wrote their topic sentence/thesis statement and switched with a partner to determine if the statement was clear and concise.  They then wrote their draft, switched again and peer edited and wrote a “final” copy or so they thought!  I took the paragraph in, gave them my feedback and handed them back the next class.  However, I took a few examples (from different groups) and projected them on my smart board.  We then took the criteria that we had jointly established and analyzed the different exemplars in small groups.  The student then took their copies back, along with my feedback and completed the real final copies.  The results were that their writing was clearer and more in depth than their original paragraphs.  I’ve basically erased ‘finish this at home tonight’ from my teaching.  


Are there challenges?  Of course there are, however I consider the challenges to be relatively minor.  One of the biggest challenges is equity, not everyone has access to the internet.  We are lucky that our department has sixteen Chromebooks at our disposal.  Students are welcome to come in at lunch in order to watch the video in my classroom; this is also for students who don’t watch the videos, they are required to come in at lunch to catch up.  Also, we have computers in the library and computer lab that are available for students to use outside of class time .  When access is an issue, it’s usually because the home computer was being used a sibling for other school work.

For me, the largest issues have been technological.  When I began last year, I used a number of Ipad apps like Tellagami, Explain Everything and Doceri to produce the videos.  Then I edited them with Camtasia Studio.  The process was bulky and cumbersome, because I was looking for images and recording on my Ipad and then importing them into a Macbook and then using the editing software to add captions and to put it all together.  This year I’m doing all of the recording and editing with Camtasia.  I’ve found that the process works better that way.  There are other options for editing as well, Microsoft Movie Maker is on most PC’s and Mac’s have iMovie.

Time is also another consideration.  When would I have the time to make these videos?  While other subjects can rely on commercially produced videos like Kahn Academy, or those from other teachers in subjects like science, the new history curriculum is virtually a blank slate.  When we flipped our History and Citizenship 404 curriculum last year, my colleague Dan Curley and I split the duties.  There were benefits in doing this, one was that it took less time for each of us to produce the videos.  The drawback was that inevitably our students prefered the videos that each of us made.  They felt reassured hearing their teacher’s voice narrating the video.  As well, the videos represented our teaching style.  For example, in my videos I don’t use a script, but rather jot notes of the most important information that I want my students to learn, based on the learning intentions that I discussed in my previous post.  I find that the tone of the videos is more conversational and organic.  I’m worried less about perfection and more on being clear and explaining the material.


If you do go ahead and flip your classroom, you’ll notice that all of the sudden you have an abundance of time.  Where did this time come from and what was I using classroom time for before?  A lecture and note-taking class that lasted between forty five minutes to an hour can be boiled down to a video that lasts between five and ten minutes. No longer are my students copying notes from the board or Powerpoint, where inevitably the pace was dependant on the student who took their notes the slowest.  The result was a lot of wasted time as the fastest students tuned out and the slower ones rushed and never paid any attention to the explanations.    My students tell me that  now they are spending twenty minutes at the most taking their notes at home, with ten or fifteen minutes being more typical.

Flipping the classroom has worked for me.  I appreciate the time that I have with my students to help them with their work and to help them improve their writing and their thinking about history.  Sometimes, I don’t appreciate the pressure to produce another video on a tight timeline, but I’ve learnt to be flexible and that if time is tight, then I don’t always have to have a video done in time for my lesson.

In my next post, I’ll be discussing formative assessment and the intellectual operations.  Meanwhile, have you flipped your classroom?  What are the advantages and drawbacks that you see in this approach?  If you considered flipping, why didn’t you take the plunge?



Educators Evaluate ‘Flipped Classrooms’ – Education Week

7 Things you should know about the Flipped Classroom – Educause

Bergmann, J and Sams, A. (2012)  Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. An ASCD & ISTE Publication.


History of Quebec and Canada – Planning for a new curriculum

Matt and student – photo by P.Rombough under license ICU

The 2015-2016 school year is here and I have the privilege of piloting the new History of Quebec and Canada program.  There are three other teachers piloting the secondary III program in the English sector, and about thirty teachers in total in the pilot project.

The purpose of this series is to give some insight into the process of teaching a whole new  curriculum from scratch – the successes and challenges that my students and I are facing as we go through this journey together.  


To begin, I decided that I was going to adopt the Understanding by Design framework for planning. For me, the Understanding by Design framework makes the most sense in setting up a new unit, or Learning and Evaluation Situation (LES).  Like in any subject, I began by unpacking the expectations of the two competencies – Characterizes a period in the history of Quebec and Canada, and Interprets a social phenomenon –  and tried to develop a number of enduring understandings and essential questions that went along with them:

Enduring Understandings Essential Questions
People move (migrate) for a variety of reasons Why do people move?
Geography and climate affect how people live. How does geography affect settlement?
Colonization involves many challenges. Why did some attempts at colonization succeed and some fail?
Different cultures interact by transforming themselves. What happens when cultures collide?

My goal was to develop understandings and essential questions that could be universal, but also lead towards specific historical knowledge in our curriculum.  We’ll have to see if the questions are too broad and need to be made more specific for my students.

After I had developed what I wanted my students to understand and the related essential questions, I went deeper into the knowledge to be acquired in order to map out the sequence of lessons that I planned to do.  I set up the lessons around an essential question or two, and developed learning intentions and corresponding success criteria.

For example, my first lesson(s) will centre on the arrival of the ancestors of the indigenous people of Canada.  The essential questions that I chose were: Why do people move? and How does geography affect settlement?

I set up the learning intentions and success criteria in a chart form that I’ve given to students so that they know exactly where we are going throughout the unit and what they need to do in order to be successful in the activities that we will do.  I included a check box so that they can physically check off that they have met the success criteria.

Learning Intentions Success Criteria
Know the Asian migration theory I can name the migration route of the First Occupants and indicate it on a map.
Know the different Aboriginal groups in the territory of Quebec. I can name the groups that belonged to the different language families and indicate them on a map.
Explain the way of life of different and social structures of native groups. I can explain the way of life and social structures and categorize artifacts belonging to different native groups.

Ideally, I’d like to build more complexity into the third (or fourth) learning intention. I think, however, that for an activity at the beginning of the year, categorizing the artifacts will get students to think critically about the ways of life,social structures, resources available, and geographical areas of the various groups.  

My next step was to plan the student assessment for the LES.  I used a table of specifications, which is also known as a blueprint, in order to make sure that I included all of the relevant knowledge, skills and competencies on the test.   The following table of specifications is one that I put together with a colleague for  Secondary I History and Citizenship .

Learning Outcomes Historical Thinking Skills Course Content/Topic % of class time on topic # items How it is assessed
Students will judge the extent that the Western Roman Empire continued into the beginning of the Middle Ages Continuity and Change (interwoven) 2 classes – presence of Christianity, use of Latin in the Church, divided territory, monastic orders, the papacy) 11% 2 Short Answer –Test
Students will compare the relationships between the individuals in feudal society Continuity and Change (progress, pace of change, periodization) 5 classes – Social, political and economic organization 29% 6 Short Answer – Test
Students will determine and distinguish elements of continuity and change in the Crusades Continuity and Change (turning point, progress and decline, pace of change, periodization) 11 classes –  Culture – Crusades, pilgrimages, effects of the Crusades 60% 12 7 Short Answer-Test5 – Performance Piece: Concept Map

The beauty of the table of specifications is that it allows you to see what emphasis that you are placing on a particular topic and you can contrast this to the amount of class time spent on the topic.  

For the unit on the native people, I realized that I had an imbalance on the test as I had two questions related to a topic that we were going to spend less time on than other topics. As well, it allowed me to see that at first I had too few lower order items on the test and that I needed to switch one of two with a higher order item.

I’ve found that these three tools have been really helpful in the planning process.  The enduring understandings and essential questions framed the learning intentions and the success criteria.  As well, the table of specifications aided to make sure that I stayed on track with my summative assessment and to balance the knowledge and skills that I wanted to evaluate.
In my next post, I’ll be discussing the advantages and disadvantages of flipping the classroom, as well on how I’m using formative assessment this year. Meanwhile, what method do you use to plan out content and how do you make sure that you stay coherent with evaluation?


Some useful links:

Quebec government hopes to improve ‘national history’ curriculum

Vers un nouveau cours d’histoire nationale au secondaire

ThenHier report on first (not final!) drafts of program: 

Consultation Document (November 2013)
For the Reinforcement of the Teaching of Québec History in Elementary and Secondary School
(en français à
http://bit.ly/1iLWc3r )

LCEEQ response:

GRUS response:

THE MEANING OF HISTORY  (Final report following the consultation)
http://www.education.gouv.qc.ca/fileadmin/site_web/documents/dpse/formation_jeunes/sens_de_histoire_AN.pdf  (LE SENS DE L’HISTOIRE en français à http://bit.ly/1ja7RZU )

iPadding… upstream! How do you manage it?

Ambitious, or is this boat just overloaded?  Recently I dared to venture away from my consultant’s desk and enter the classroom again, to help a teacher, my good friend Mr. Matt Russell, with an ambitious project on immigration experiences for his Secondary 4 History course.

IMG_5713Our project, our idea,  to boldly explore immigration experiences throughout Canadian History.  The process, a historical method of course, where we start with a question: “Was it worth it, their Canadian dream?”.  Then we had them hypothesize, research, organize information and interpret it.  For one of the final tasks we had students script and produce a green-screened video project, an interview with an imaginary immigrant while key images of the times were projected as backgrounds to the texts of their journeys. And all that, pretty much each step, was accomplished on iPads. (The whole LES, how we did it, and loads and loads of materials are all posted here!)

Our process, our successes and our failures were all part of a workshop at the Tablet Summit in October. We learned a lot, and worked a lot to make it happen. But in the end, one remark Matt made afterwards continued to scratch at my brain, until it finally bore its way out and into this blog entry. He said, “You know, I couldn’t have done all this alone without your help.” Now, most of the time one would take that as a compliment, but in this case I think both of us saw it as a criticism, or at least a caution, about our whole project, about the use of iPads or any technology in the classroom at all. The problem was just that: it was a ton of work! But does it have to be?, was my inner response –  And how can it not be? was my question.

Hot on the heels of these reflections, I asked four questions to several teachers in a survey I sent out just last week. About 20 teachers graciously responded, and I thought sharing some of their responses would be a good way to see what is possible, to see what can be done in a manageable way.

Who sets up and configures your iPads for you? Is this something a teachers normally do alone?  Many respondents referred to help from the board, and technicians, but not all. About half mentioned groups of teachers who collaborate on finding and installing applications for use in all classes considered. About a third of teachers mentioned they only use about five or six iPads, and they were willing to do it for their class at home, one teacher with the help of her 12 year old daughter!  Teamwork seemed essential, good technical contacts yes, but also a willingness to put time into the configuration process on your own. But teachers weren’t complaining at all.  The tone:  it was just par for the course.

But how are the students with technology? How much technical instruction (modelling, guides, etc.) is required? Can students figure out things on their own? I asked this question because creating tutorials, instructions, and taking part of the class to model how to use the application’s features took a lot of time and was not always as successful as we hoped.  Several students just got it.  Maybe if we just stayed out of the way? Indeed, most of the teachers I surveyed indicated students learned the applications very quickly, with only minimal guidance.  8448122632_6461070b83_c“The kids are really quite good. Often we need to just show them a little and they figure it out or say I know how to do this!”  “They are really good at figuring it out on their own as well and pretty fast.”  Like us, several teachers had a way to project their iPad onto the screen, so they could model a the task, but not necessarily in great detail.  “Very easily. I can model once and they are off and running.”  Actually only one teacher mentioned producing instruction sheets, and that was more about the pedagogical task than the tool, while another teacher emphasized time spent time on safe use.

What about getting students to do things at home? Can some of the work with iPads be offloaded to students? (Full disclosure on this question, I asked this because I personally believe it was our error to try to do it all in class time.) Well, most teachers that responded said they didn’t expect or want students to do work at home. Many said it was because they didn’t have either the iPads or Internet there, or couldn’t be expected to. In part, I think this was because most were elementary teachers, and also that the school doesn’t let students bring home the devices. And also, I think the question might have been misinterpreted too.
7950148048_f0b78b3ce7_cI was trying to find out whether some parts of the process (research, writing, even filming or recording using a cellphone for some of the media work) could be done by students on their own. After looking over my responses I talked a bit with Julie Paré whose excellent article iPad en classe de FLS: mission possible! had inspired me to respond with this entry.  Though she didn’t actually have her students do many tasks at home for that particular iPad project, for another recent project she did require them to research and learn about a multimedia presentation tool (Powerpoint, Prezi, etc.) on their own, and on their own to put together a presentation at home.  Secondary level for sure, but still, they weren’t privileged well-off students by any means, and it at least speaks to the fact that 1) students are capable of learning technology by searching for tutorials and instruction, and 2) there is enough internet and technology outside the classroom for students to be expected to use it on their own time. (Yes, that might mean going to a library, something that “in my day” I had to often do in high school for research projects. What happened that kids who are on computer all the time at night aren’t regularly expected to use them for school?)

But how can you manage it all? My last questions were to ask iPadding teachers to “share ways to manage the distribution of iPads, their shared use in class, the way students backup or send work.” None of the questions were mandatory, but no one missed this one. They all had interesting gems of advice.

“In pairs” and “they share use in class.” It sounds obvious, but for us too it was key that only two students use an iPad. Three meant one person was always apart and distracted, two meant one could work the iPad while the other took notes or read instructions or other texts.

“We’re not authorized to print… but by using print screen every work can be a jpg we can put in the portfolio. Another said “teachers email the work to themselves for printing… screen shot then email it”. Though one teacher indicated saving of files right on the iPad, most expressed our reality well: that we had no time to go and plug in iPads to get their projects off them for backup or evaluation. The LES package we created describes how we got (perhaps too) creative. We used iCloud for sharing links and uploading photos and screenshots, Dropbox for syncing the research and film work, Mail for sending a copy (blocked! never mind), we saved copies to iTunes, and to get work back to students the next day we used folders on Google Drive.  For the few stragglers we got at the end of each class we used Disk Aid to manually copy out their work.  It was work for us setting it up, yes, but it meant we didn’t loose their assignments… much.  Couldn’t any of that, couldn’t all that have been the responsibility of the students?  Wouldn’t lightening the boat by distributing the load have benefited all?  Well, of course, at certain grade levels, yes.  Because that is exactly what they’ll need to learn how to do anyway, as a class to use the school’s networks, but also on their own, with their own devices or their own cloud-based accounts.

But finally, what are your tricks…. for using, handing out and retrieving the iPads themselves. “It depends on the subject…the teacher decides when to take them out.” Obviously, using iPads doesn’t have to mean using them for everything! “Keep a list and work my way through class.” A brave adventurer, rapids ahead!  “iPads are used in one specific physical location in the class.” The waters are calmer there.  And  “they have numbers…I call them up one by one to the cart and they are to keep ipads face down at their desks until instructions are complete. They are asked to bring them back the same way…if they do not comply the ipad is removed for the class.”  Splash!  That’ll wake you up to reality.  Let’s face it, these devices are….easily lost, easily taken, easily broken devices worth a lot of dollars.

For our LES process Matt and I adapted a few tools passed on, again, from Ms. Paré!, including sign out sheets, parent’s letters and permission slips, also available as part of our package. And, for sure,  after a few days we also started to develop a routine. But one thing was for sure, until you get this routine down pat, nothing is routine about it. The devices were new to us, even to hold and carry them in a pile was new.  And they were new to the students too, every class a new configuration of apps because they weren’t on the same devices each day, sharing meant you couldn’t touch one for a week, etc.  Still, all that being said, I expect that for classes who do use them regularly, and in which rules and routines are well set out and clear, management of devices like these are possible, even once the time finally comes when students start using their own devices and not just the school’s. It is all a question of organization and expectations and consequences.  It all about how you manage the ebb and flow of what’s ahead.

As to the teachers who responded, I would like to thank them all for sharing their thoughts and ideas, and welcome them, and others, to comment on anything said in this article.  If anything, I have noticed that teachers who are able to and who dare to take the plunge and start using mobile devices in their classes, well, these are also teachers who appreciate the sharing of experiences and strategies with other teachers.

So what do you think? Can mobile technology’ like iPads’ be done, up river?  Can some of the work to implement technology be offloaded to students? Can even the next generation of students, who will be bringing their own devices into the classroom be managed, so that the subjects we teach can get taught? Please, add your thoughts to the comments below!

Photo credits:
Matt Russell for Greenscreen Mystery Guy!
Flickr user flickingerbrad for all classroom photos





3 a.m. blogging, and why social sciences (/school) should be social, and public!

Father as Multitasker by Stephen Poff
Father as Multitasker by Stephen Poff

First I will partially explain the title, as NOT being because my new baby boy woke me up earlier at 2 a.m.  It’s about what kept ringing in my head afterwards, and the fact that it continued to ring at all. In part it was because I knew I was going to be writing this blog entry for others, for public consumption.  That’s what made it important enough to keep me awake, to drag me out of bed, again, to seek out tea and cookies and finally a keyboard. And likewise, it certainly was not because I was being marked on it, or because my job depended on it.  It was instead because I had an idea I thought was worth sharing. And also, it was because something of me was about to end up “shared” on the web, and I wanted that something to be made up of my ideas, or at least in this case my slant on a lot of other people’s ideas.  I wanted to represent myself.

These two profound ideas resurfaced for me recently during a highly inspiring workshop I attended by Tanya Avrith, a Digital Citizenship Teacher for the Lester B. Pearson School Board, and a pioneer of their Digital Citizenship Program. On the one hand, she helped me reflect on why my other (teenage) son’s school assignments always ended up in the garbage. They were for marks, nothing more.  And as to the other idea, she alerted me to something very important that I hadn’t ever considered, to the fact that my older son already had an extensive digital/internet footprint, mostly made up things he wouldn’t be proud of, and more often than not of things others wrote about him, pictures he didn’t take, etc.  Not an ideal situation for someone searching for schools and jobs, whose college registrars and future employers would be Googling my older son’s unfortunately uncommon name.

For a Better Online Reputation, from LifeHacker
Better Online Reputation @ LifeHacker

The question is, why does this happen to him and so many others, this accumulation of embarrassing memories? It’s not for lack of information, not because he hadn’t been warned about the risks and told about the complexities of  life online. It was because, and I agreed with Tanya on this, that no knowledgeable adults regularly followed him there, to guide him and set examples.  And also… it was because none of his good work, his school work let’s say, followed him there either, to offset all the questionable traces left by others.

Already 5 a.m. and my work day about to begin, so that brings me back to thinking about my main dossier at LEARN, and if and how ideas like this might apply to the Social Sciences (History, Geography, Economics, Ethics in some programs, etc.). These subjects are “academic disciplines concerned with society and human nature” and as such they do serve to engage past and present events and issues, but usually from within the school walls. Obviously you can see from what I presented above I don’t think avoiding the internet during student activities is fair to our students on a personal and on a career-related level, but more than that, I think it is especially ineffective and inappropriate in the Social Sciences.

The Social Sciences Perspective

Bansky via Flickr user Ruben LC
Bansky via Flickr user Ruben LC

Let’s start with what I mean by ineffective. In the social science competencies we examine, establish and balance the facts, we interpret realities then we learn ways to voice our opinions. For me these basic skills read like a list of things one cannot do effectively, not in this day and age, by avoiding the digital, social and public space that is the Internet.

Examining what? Balancing exactly what facts? When it comes to subjects like history and geography, are we really talking about facts in textbooks alone? Are we meant to avoid current sources and interpretations, meant to ignore the news and the myriad opinions of the non-experts, the young and the old, and the stories from those who “were actually there”?  Sure, the number of sources in our digital world is vast, and many are even unreliable, but is that a reason to filter them out or avoid them altogether? Shouldn’t we be teaching students how to sift through them, how to use search engines effectively, how to compare online sources?

Interpreting, but how?  Voicing our opinions, but how, where, and for whom?  When we talk of creating good citizens, do we really mean to create citizens who avoid interpreting events, past and present, based on current representations of those events? Do we want to form students who can only write their opinions in a laboratory, for their teacher’s eyes only? In the real world, modern historians … Okay, I will get to that one a bit later, for now let’s say…people. In the real world people balance and reflect on all kinds of sources. They might read the Gazette, catch a clip from CNN, then watch a feature documentary on CBC. They might actually look it up in a library. In Quebec even Anglophones check out La Presse occasionally, or watch half of  Tout le monde en parle on Sunday nights.

From flickr user cliff1066™
Fleeing Kosovo. Flickr user cliff1066™

The world has opened up, and mobile devices help.  BBC and Al Jazeera now offer great English-language news services on devices like the iPad, and following a link from any of the above sources can now lead you to unexpected places, to bloggers and tweeters on the ground in Israel, Africa, China or Iran, to powerful and personal images shared via Flickr that scatter a thousand words worth of information across your screen in an instant.

Okay, not all people balance and reflect. In the real world, people also read short articles recommended by friends on Facebook. Are those documents the best sources of information too? Maybe, and maybe not. But either way this is one way people, probably even academics, get information, by sifting through even these social sources, through all sources.

So, given all that, then where do people, or let us now say citizens, effectively voice opinions?  Perhaps not on Facebook, which doesn’t lend itself to “reasoning historically” and doesn’t encourage one to really develop an articulate argument. But maybe, maybe even on Facebook, and that possibility is key here to what I am trying to say. What guides educators should be this:  any forum that allows and inspires students to articulate their opinion, and encourages and allows them to examine, establish facts, compare, accept and understand difference, any forum that does that is good.

For whom?

Okay, now it is a few days later and I am in the café across from my local, public library, and I am thinking about a conference I went to mid-April, which had also been what had inspired me to stay up all hours blogging this all down. To write, for whom?  That was the question.  For you, of course, is the answer! But also and in general terms for the larger public domain, to scratch out thoughts that inevitably become a small part of a larger history, that might take part in a dialogue, or that might completely disappear (but that’s okay, really) like the slow fire of so many old books printed on acid paper. Now, I am indeed talking about a kind of historian, and the conference that inspired me was the National Council on Publish History’s annual meeting in Ottawa, and in particular a workshop series I attended entitled “Connecting Communities: Social Media and Public History Practice.”

What is public history? Okay, I am going to swipe this one from the NCPH site directly:

“Public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues. […] Public historians come in all shapes and sizes. They call themselves historical consultants, museum professionals, government historians, archivists, oral historians, cultural resource managers, curators, film and media producers, historical interpreters, historic preservationists, policy advisers, local historians, and community activists, among many, many other job descriptions. All share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere.”

Relevant, useful, local.  Archivists, curators, and jobs!  I really like those words.  In my eyes, this conference was about social science students (albeit life-long students) actively being citizens by “doing” history, and actually making a difference in the real world.

Here are a few quick examples I caught at the conference:  University students develop content for a mobile application that maps the history of Cleveland, process repeats for Spokane and other cities, regular users of the application can submit their stories and history becomes on-going and active. Facebook is used to disseminate unidentified photos of a ghost-mining town, so as to identify the places, people and experiences in them.  Twitter is used to present the diary entries of an individual farmer and soldier during the War of 1812, in daily entries that coincide with the same dates in 2012, in order to better represent the timing and sequence of events that occur in actual economies of war today.  Tumblr is used to reflect on historical ideas themselves, and on how social media techniques and popular culture are used to disseminate information in public life.


Public life=my students’ social world,  the community, their small tribe as connected to other small tribes, along paths I absolutely need to dare to cross.

And that’s it.  These are some of the many reasons why in the middle of the night I woke up thinking that school really should be more social, and that social sciences (and maybe all subjects) should be more public, and why now, finishing up this blog entry over a cold coffee across from the library, I might just walk across the street to see what that cryptic exhibit poster in the window really means to me, and what treasures I might find there to take home and read, contemplate, pass on.



Beginner’s Mind: A first-time online teacher’s experience, so far.

The year has just started, so realistically all I ever expected to report on were first impressions anyway, of what it means to teach online at the secondary level, of how this great adventure begins.  Conclusions?  Well, they will have to wait until later, to be able to say, yes, you can teach the Quebec program the way it was meant to be taught, yes students can learn constructively, yes synchronous really means real-time.  For now it is not about projecting into the future, but staying grounded in the present.  It is all new, all the time.  That’s what I tell the students.  And that that will be our force.

Zenlive is our platform, an interactive space where students can see and hear me and where they can interact with each other, just like in a real classroom.  Re-read those words, a real classroom.  Real walls?  Real windows?  Real live students?  If I think too much about it I find myself doubting what is real at all.  Zenlive is an experience, for me and for them, where nothing is like it was before, everything is new and each step is conscious and fresh at the same time.

“Are we going to get to see our teacher?” If they had been spoken aloud the words might have echoed off the pale walls of a freshly painted classroom, that new September smell.  But these words were texted to us in a small space at the bottom of the interface, hardly noticeable except to the experienced online teachers present.  It was both an awkward reminder that I would have to rely on the technology’s limits to communicate, but also that their questions might now come to me in a form that they have mastered and that I have not:  the text message!  My response to this question in my first few days was to test their web cameras at every chance I got, to have them respond to questions as if we were all together, to see and hear them like before.  Their response was more often than not a LOL or 🙂 or sometimes a :-/ or a :u or even a 😐 if they just didn’t get it.  I was in another world, their world.  And indeed, I was the beginner too.

This will be our force, I had said. And so the next few days were spent trying out features like the breakout rooms in Zenlive.  I drag their avatar into a room and they work on a whiteboard, chat and even talk (though they didn’t talk much) with another two classmates.  It worked, sort of.  They were able to construct for themselves a sense to the question asked of them, so when I brought them all back together they might share what they had learned.  “Who was in the breakout room number two?” I said.  But no one knew.  I hadn’t thought to write down who was where.  Simply relying on the technology to do everything for me just wasn’t going to do it.  My first mistake in online classroom management was to forget to manage online.

Only a few more notes before I end, because frankly today I need all morning to plan the next classes!  First off, technology means it will eventually break, so you always need a backup plan, several if possible. Technology also means you have to talk slowly, because your tech is not always their tech, and you can’t rely on kilobits and cpu cycles to always be the same for everyone.  The upside here is that the information must be clear and concise, and you must repeat things a lot!  And finally, technology still does mean a world of teaching with almost no limits, however that implies setting limits, making goals, and restricting your line of thinking so that we are all on the same page.  For example, introduce new tools one at a time and include exploration time for students (and the teacher!), time to make mistakes.

And so, this week’s plans?  It’s History Sec. 4, so of course we will…Respond to a problem, in the context of a situation.  We will formulate questions, search and organize information using a prescribed method.  We will rigorously reason and interpret the facts, then form an opinion.  And after all is said and done, we will present our findings using… Voicethread! a “collaborative, multimedia slide show that holds images, documents, and videos and allows people to leave comments using voice, text, audio file, or video.”   Well, >:o  and >:O and :-O and °o° and °O°!    And :-S because that’s a whole lot of things that are about to break.  And finally 😎 because now all eyes are wide and open, including mine.


[Are you teaching and/or learning online?  What do you think?]