Tuesday, April 30, 2019

My First Term as a STEAM Specialist @MatuaNgaru

An astute reader of this blog would probably notice that I haven't written anything here for about half a year now. A reader who knows me personally would also know that despite that fact, much has been going on in my life. I'm the type of person who, when opportunity comes knocking, finds it quite difficult to say no. Maybe it's because I read too much into the movie Yes Man. I'm not sure.

Well, opportunity certainly has come knocking a lot for me in the last six months. I'm here today to tell you about one of those opportunities that I've seized: being a STEAM specialist educator at a new school, Matua Ngaru in Auckland. Perhaps my story can help you. Perhaps it will just be an interesting read. Either way, here's what I did, how it went, and what I learned.

For some context: Matua Ngaru is a school that first opened its doors to learners on February 7th, 2019. Since about late August 2018, I've been working for the school, doing various things to get ready. We knew it was going to be a lot of work, but boy, did it ever exceed our expectations in that regard! Our first term has pretty much seemed like a non-stop school day that lasted 10 weeks. There have been ups and there have been downs, but no matter how those balance out in the end, I can say this for certain: I learned a lot!

Up until this point, I had never really spent too much time teaching STEAM specifically - unless you count robotics and a few things I've done with Lego - so being told I'd see every Matua Ngaru learner once a week to do some STEAM stuff with them was quite a scary proposition (What if I'm no good at this thing I've been trying to do for the last several years? What if I can't make it work?). Luckily, I was given this task well in advance, so I had time to prepare and think about it. I had some help and, obviously, I also had all those previous conversations with people who HAD done this before. It's safe to say I came into this with TONS of ideas.

Our school is divided at the moment into two Kāinga: Wheke, for our Year 1-3 learners and Popoto, for our Year 4-8 learners. As a school we decided I'd see four groups from Wheke and 2 from Popoto each week. To make things simple, I decided to just make two lessons each week and repeat them. While we were planning everything, we hadn't yet met any of the learners and we did't know what skills or STEAM experience they would be bringing with them when they arrived on day 1. While this decision was not a total disaster, it was clear there needed to be some more differentiation after a few weeks. The difference between a Year 1 learner who has just started school and a Year 3 learner can be quite big, and having them do the same things after a while didn't seem that great of an idea. I made it work for the term, but now that we know the learners, we've grouped them differently - and have added another group for the older children so I can give them a bit more time. These groups have been determined by the maths groupings in their kāinga, so there will be less of a range of abilities and experience within the groups.

My plan for the term was to go through as many different STEAM related areas and ideas so that I could 1) get a good understanding of where every child was and 2) introduce a lot of things that they will need going forward if my long term plans are to be realized. This plan worked quite well on some weeks and on others I felt like I needed more time. The very idea of only seeing a group once a week for 40 minutes to an hour is troublesome when it comes to STEAM, so I also had the potential problem that if I started something that needed to be kept for a further week, it would be difficult to manage all the resources.

I tried to make sure I was covering as many of the STEAM areas as I could, as well as giving a good variety of activities to introduce certain ideas to the children. Overall, I think it was a good plan and that it went well. Almost every activity (even if I thought it wouldn't) was something that the majority of the children enjoyed. Not everything went as I had thought - there was definitely a skill gap for many of the children and most had never heard of things such as Sphero, Scratch or Makey Makey.

As far as individual lessons and activities went, I tried my best to 1) make them hands on, 2) connect them with our school's 4 C values (Creative, Curious, Communicative, Collaborative) and 3) highlight a specific role of STEAM professionals. So for example, some weeks we would look at what a scientist does and is, another week we would look at what an engineer does and is, and so on. As mentioned above, I only had two different lessons and they were usually related. For example, in one week I had the younger learners drive Sphero and the older ones code it. This worked well enough, but there were always children on the fringes for whom things were too easy or too hard. So in this upcoming term, I've decided to go with four different lessons/activities for my 7 groups. One group will be mostly play-based and experiential. This change was necessary because many of our youngest learners have shorter attention spans and had a hard time following when I talked of bigger concepts. I wanted to approach their learning in a different manner and will have the opportunity to do so with this grouping. I'll also have a Learning Assistant available for this and I plan on recruiting an older learner or two to assist in this session. I then three different lessons & activities for the remaining 6 groups - so two each lesson. They will range from a group I'll be trying to push quite far (as they have had some experience and are very keen learners) to a group of young and excited children who like what we're doing but just haven't done it before.

Another change I want to make this term is to highlight someone who's done something noteworthy in each session. I was inspired to do this by seeing various articles about Dr Katie Bouman who was the lead scientist in charge of taking the first picture of a black hole. I want to be able to give my learners some inspiration for what they could do and I thought this was a good way to do so.

Here's a look at a couple of the slides I've used this past term:

As some readers may also know about me, I've been working on a few projects through MakerEdNZ: namely Coding Across the Curriculum & the Monthly Maker Challenges. In this past term, I made an effort to tie these in together. Having been preparing for this year for a while now, I've not actually had a group of learners of my own to participate in these things, which is somewhat necessary for me to make them better. We've done two of the challenges now and one of the coding across the curriculum videos. I'm definitely going to keep using these (especially the Maker Challenges - which will be the topic of a post one of these days) as I feel like if given enough participants they could become a very meaningful way of sharing STEAM learning throughout New Zealand.  Here's the latest challenge I've made:

I've also been very lucky when it comes to resourcing this year. Despite being a new school (and not having had years to build up our resources) we've spent some money on some useful tools for me (and the rest of the school) to use with any STEAM learning experiences. Our first major purchase was a kit of 15 Sphero Bolt robots. We've had many of our children excited to learn on these and after only one session with me, many have discovered some interesting new ways to use them. The long term plan (at least until we get another set of robots in the future) is to use these once a term with each group to start build on their knowledge base around them. We've also managed a set of Makey Makeys (which again, went down very well with our learners) and have just ordered a set of Micro:Bits. I've been given a healthy budget to acquire more things so that has been super helpful, and there is a lot of that left, so I'm looking forward to exploring some of the things we can get for my future STEAM sessions.

Going forward I've got a clear plan of action. I will continue to do one-off sessions to get the learners more familiar with a variety of technologies and ways of engaging learning. We've been developing a series of inquiry processes that will be introduced more and more in my STEAM session, but also in our Trans-Disciplanary Projects - another aspect of our program that I'll be supporting. We're also looking at creating a few clubs to help push our more keen and older learners. Competitions are also going to be a focus for the remainder of the year, with us looking at the Epro8 and Lego First League as priorities.

I'm really excited both about what I've accomplished in one term, but also for what the future holds in this role. There is a lot to do, but I feel like I've made a great start!

For more information about the STEAM program at Matua Ngaru, visit our website.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Book Review: Dive Into Inquiry by Trevor MacKenzie

When I was at ISTE this past year, I had the pleasure of meeting fellow Canadian (and UVic alum!) Trevor MacKenzie when we were both volunteering and presenting at the EdTech Team booth. I had seen his books around beforehand and was interested in reading them, but I developed a new sense of urgency after listening to him speak about he personalizes the learning for his students. I was amazed and wanted to find out more, so I got myself a copy of his first book: Dive Into Inquiry and had a read.

In the book, MacKenzie outlines not only several reasons for changing the way we teach, but also gives a very comprehensive guide on how you could do so. This way of thinking is something extremely relevant with Matua Ngaru School planning on using a lot of inquiry in our collective practice when we open in 2019.

The book begins with discussing how we can co-construct learning with our students and how that leads to the redefinition of the role of a teacher. By allowing learners to co-construct their learning they have a greater buy-in to the process and more authentic learning naturally comes. This also necessitates a change what we do, to support this. We are not the expert that dispenses knowledge. We are also the "coach, facilitator, networker and shoulder-to-lean-on." MacKenzie describes several qualities that we educators need to have and helps those not so far along in the journey think about how they can support their learners in a different manner.

After a discussion on how to assess inquiry, the book goes on to discuss the four types of student inquiry: Structured Inquiry, Controlled Inquiry, Guided Inquiry & Free Inquiry, all of which are displayed below in this wonderful sketchnote by Trevor himself.

All too often, schools hear about Inquiry and jump into the deep end, not allowing the children to learn the necessary skills to complete a successful inquiry (though, again, the book does discuss the idea that a successful inquiry doesn't necessarily mean having a polished creation at the end of it - sometimes failure and challenge is a better indication of learning).

MacKenzie then spends the remainder of the book looking in-depth into Inquiry, and specifically Free Inquiry. He uses lots of sketchnotes to help show the process and key ideas. All of his inquiry projects start with the Four Pillars of Inquiry, illustrated below:

These are basically a guide as to how a learner can approach an inquiry. It should fit into at least one of the pillars for the inquiry to be meaningful. The next steps of the inquiry are outlined in the following sketchnote: 

I could go on and on about the details that are presented, but my advice to you is to get a copy of the book and read it yourself. There are tons of great ideas to facilitate each of these steps, as well as anecdotes and links to projects that have been completed. Many educators have probably had some experience with this way of teaching, and no doubt there are many similarities. This does not mean that this is the ONLY way of doing inquiry. You've got to do what works for your learners and for you in your specific context. But this book will definitely make you think and will inspire you as well. I personally can't wait to read his next book, Inquiry Mindset (yeah, I know, I'm a bit behind the times...)

If you're interested in finding out more about what Trevor has done and is doing check out his website at https://www.trevormackenzie.com/.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Book Review: A Learner's Paradise by Richard Wells

Recently I took some time to read A Learner's Paradise, Richard Wells' praise of the New Zealand education system. He makes a compelling case that New Zealand is the best place to be a learner in the world. His main arguments are that we have a system set up to be responsive to learner needs because we have a very open-ended curriculum and we have several other structures set in place to allow educators to adapt their practice to the children they see each day.

I agree with much of what he says, up to a point. Certainly our curriculum is one of the best to work with if you are a teacher. There are many broad ideas, rather than specifics. We don't have a set plan that's the same for every child. There's no one telling teachers that you have to teach fractions at a certain time of the year and in a predetermined way. We have Key Competencies that are overarching for our curriculum, which help us as educators mould our learners into citizens who engage with society and try to better it.

Schools also have a great deal of autonomy in New Zealand. We are essentially self-governed and are able to determine what and how we teach. Teachers here have the opportunity to grow and learn. Our standards are based upon growth, not competency. Every three years a teacher needs to show work towards developing their capabilities rather than just ticking boxes. The way this appraisal process work is determined by schools and in many cases by the educators themselves.

Schools in New Zealand are free to interpret all of these documents as they wish (within reason of course). And through that interpretation, we have had some amazing things come to be: KidsEdChatNZ, The Mind Lab, CORE education and others. New Zealand teachers have it pretty good, and so do New Zealand learners.

The book also delves into some amazing practices that are happening in New Zealand schools. Two of my favourite were Kids Domain Kindergarten and Breen's Intermediate School. Wells told a story of children at Kids Domain going to visit a parking garage and then returning to class and coming up with designs to make a better parking garage in an example of Design Thinking being used with very young children. Breen's Intermediate has different spaces designated for different modes of learning (see the picture below) paired with the ability of learners to design their own school days to make an extremely innovative and learner centred approach. Those and the other examples (and many others not in the book) prove just how amazing a school in New Zealand could become.

All of that sounds rosy and amazing. However, I don't feel as though many schools take advantage of these amazing opportunities. I've seen many schools in the few years I've been here and most of them still spend 75% or more of their day on reading, writing and maths, with no opportunity for learners to have any input into their education. I see teachers working themselves silly trying to make sure they see four reading groups, three writing groups and four maths groups every day. More than ever, some schools are treating education like an industrial process, putting children on an endless conveyor belt towards the teacher. 

I wish every educator in New Zealand could read this book and see what is actually possible in this amazing system. There is so much innovation and amazing things being done, it sometimes saddens me to still see children trudging through their school days just getting through a school day or worse, feeling disengaged and powerless in their lives. We've lost sight of what is possible and what success really means in our schools. Richard Wells has done a great and necessary job in reminded all of us what we actually have and offers glimpses of what's possible.

If you are an educator anywhere, try to find the time to read this amazing book and share it with your colleagues. Surely it will open your eyes!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Day Full of Lego

Anyone who knows me (or who has been in my home) knows I have a little bit of an obsession with Lego. So when the opportunity came up to learn about some Lego resources that can be used in the classroom, one could easily imagine that I would literally jump at the opportunity. This morning I made the drive down to Te Matauranga School and was immediately transported back to my childhood dreams when I saw the sheer volume of Lego that was present at the school. It was amazing!

And it only got better from there. We spent most of the day working on some hands on activities, all to do with Lego WeDO 2.0 as well as with EV3 robots. Our amazing facilitators (who came across the ditch from Australia) made sure we had a lot of things to do.

The first thing we played with, was the WeDo 2.0. I had seen this in previous years (I'm sure if you go back in my twitter feed, you'll see it) and in the interim had never really gotten a chance to learn more. We did a few activities with this. The first was to take 10 pieces from the set and make any animal. We had two minutes to do this (with the wonderful advice of start with your hands and let your brain catch up) and as you can see in the picture below, not one of us made the same as another. It's a great way to get started when you're working with Lego (or anything else for that matter) to show that everyone has great ideas and they can be very different from each other.

We then used the app to make a windmill (or a fan) and then have a bit of a play with the coding. It is very easy to use, and has a lot of different functions. Our last challenge was to make a music machine. I spent a good bit of time of this, iterating and making new versions, adding features as I got inspiration. It was all good fun.  Here's a tweet & video of what I made with my partner:
After a break for morning tea, we spent the remainder of the day with the EV3 robots. While the WeDo is for younger children, the EV3 has more capabilities and is more suited for older learners. We first learned how to make a quick build (not Lego Certified) to do some testing on getting the robot to move an exact distance. We started with 15cm, then 40cm and finally we tested our calculations on 2m exactly. We did this, however, with a minifigure called Daredevil Dan. Due to some inaccuracies at the 40cm level, our calculations were out quite a bit. Though eventually we managed to get it close (though, I guess it didn't work if we just nicked him at the end). Our trials are reversed here:
The last challenge of the day was to make a robot that moved WITHOUT wheels. Again, I spent a good amount of time iterating and improving our robot. On carpet, our robot moved quite quickly, but on the lino, it was not so fast. It was still quite menacing and I think I may have a future in some sort of robot wars type competition.
Another thing that we discussed was the First Lego League. Every year Lego sets out challenges for both Juniors (using WeDo) and Seniors (using EV3). You can register, get a pack of pieces and then join local competitions which can lead on to national and international competitions. Lego First New Zealand seems to be growing rather quickly, so it's probably a good time for schools to get in on it. The national competition here is on December 1st, I believe. All you need is an EV3 or WeDo and to sign up on the site to get the materials (which do have a cost, but it's worth it, I'd say). Even though I can't do it this year (my school has no learners until next year) it's definitely something I'll be looking into for next year.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Sir Paul Callaghan Science Academy Alumni Event

Yesterday was a busy day for me. After my guest spot on The Suite Talk, I attended an event put on by the Sir Paul Callaghan Science Academy. In 2015 (before I started this blog, that's actually a bit hard to believe, to be honest) I attended the Academy in Havelock North, and it was an amazing 4 day course where I learned a lot about teaching science and how interesting and relevant we can make it (because making slime and putting mentos in coke does not constitute a science program - sorry for those of you who think it does). This year they are offering half day workshops for alumni so I decided to sign up.

It was definitely worth the time and effort to get there for the two topics that we covered: Models and Causal Thinking/CERR (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, Rebuttal).


Models are a great way to help make any concept clear to a learner - not just in science. Often we forget that as adults we have had lots of experiences which leads to a lot of ways our brains can visualize complex ideas. Children don't necessarily have those experiences so as educators we can help foster better understanding by providing models. Models can come in a variety of forms. We discussed at length a question of whether or not a van or a car would tip over. We used the below cars, some cardboard and a protractor to see which would tip over. We discussed the pros and cons of using the models. It's a hands on activity that can be repeated quickly (fast feedback loop) and helps give a visual of what's happening, but it doesn't necessarily reflect what would happen with a real car or truck. 

As part of our discussion, I suggested that we could do some modelling on CoSpacesEdu, so in a few minutes I whipped up the simulation below. CoSpaces has a physics feature which can allow you to simulate many different things. It's not super precise (I didn't have many options for angles, but maybe I just missed that), but it does help give a visual.

We looked at a variety of other models, including drawings, models of the solar system (during which we discussed how no one model of it completely shows what it's like, but they all have some value in our understanding), Lego (a personal favourite), making similies and metaphors, among others. This certainly made me think more about models and modelling (which connects to what Jo Boaler says about Math learning) and will make me more conscious about putting models at the forefront of learning (not just Science learning). I also want to put a shout out to Google Expeditions which has many, many examples of AR models that can be used in the classroom to help further understanding.

Causal Thinking and CERR

Causal Thinking

We talked a lot about the difference between causation and correlation (and though it wasn't actually mentioned: coincidence) and how that distinction is becoming so important to make, especially with ideas that are being floated throughout social media and by some world leaders (cough, cough). Some of the examples we looked at were the relationship between a full moon and either births or strange behaviour as well as people getting a 6 months to live diagnosis but then having their cancer go into remission. These events actually have little to no evidence to support a causal relationship, but yet some people take small sample sizes that suggest no link between two events and try to convince others of it. A real example of causation, which many have probably seen was this: 

I think it's imperative to get children (and adults) talking about cause and effect. Like models, this is something that carries over to all areas (hey, there's a theme! Maybe it's not about the subjects but how we THINK about the subjects...). We should always be examining what the causes are and trying to determine if what we assume to be the reasons for something happening are truly the reasons.  As educators, we can also provide learning opportunities for learners to examine this relationship.

CERR (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, Rebuttal)

This idea was shared as a method for reporting science investigations, which makes sense and helps build reasoning skills within children. Normally when we investigate something, we start with a question. We then perform a fair test which helps us gather evidence. Sometimes this is where investigations end. Those who continue on often use reasoning to make a claim about the original question and then share the results. Rarely do we think about the alternative case and provide a reason for why it isn't true (that would be a rebuttal). When we're sharing, however, we should start with our claim, follow with our evidence, our reasoning and then with an explanation of why the (an) alternate case is not true.

For example, my group was looking at the following question: Given their seeds are so similar are pine trees (picture on right) closely related to sycamore trees (picture on left)?

Our claim was that they were not similar to each other because when we looked closely at the seeds there were many differences. The sycamore seeds are spherical while the pine tree ones are flat and elongated. The sycamore seeds also have a main vein on one side which branches off like a wing or a leaf. Lines on the pine tree seed go vertically and don't really branch off. The pine tree seed is also very waxy and thin compared the the rougher and thicker sycamore leaf. We also reasoned that since the trees look actually quite different (Pine Trees are evergreen and Sycamores are deciduous) that the alternative (that they are closely related) is not likely to be possible.

It was a great way to spend an afternoon, all told. The presenter was amazing and we had some good conversations about the topics we learned. I would recommend anyone interested in becoming a better educator of science to try to find one of the free workshops put on by the academy (see the link at the top). They're amazing!

My Guest Appearance on The Suite Talk with Kimberly Mattina

One of the perks of being connected through various online groups is that people from all over the world share various opportunities. A few months ago, one of the opportunities that I came across was to be a guest presenter on a (live streaming) YouTube show: The Suite Talk with Kimberly Mattina. Due to various delays on both ends, it took a few months to sort out a time that worked (I am the farthest guest by a wide margin) but yesterday the stars aligned and I was able to make it.

Here's the video if you'd like to hear me talk about Digital Breakouts and how you can make them (plus a few hints to some breakouts I've made!).

I really enjoyed the experience and am definitely keen to do these types of things in the future (so keep an eye out for that!).

So far there have been 67 views on the video. It's not a HUGE amount, but it's still a pretty decent impact. I hope that some of the viewers got something out of it.

If you're interested in learning more about how G Suite can be used in the classroom, check out the other episodes in the series.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Google Innovator: One Year On (or, It's My Innoversary!)

It's been just over a year since I returned home from Sydney and the SYD17 Google Innovator Cohort. In the past twelve months I have been working hard to implement the project that I planned, along with my team and my coaches. It has been a long journey, which by no means is over yet, and in writing this I'm feeling rejuvenated to continue with these innovative ideas and to start with some more.

Though this is a time for celebration and sharing, it's also a time to reflect upon the failures as well. Things have definitely not gone as I had planned in 2017, but that's alright. I've fallen a bit short of a few of my goals, but at the same time, I'm achieved more in some directions that I didn't even think I was going to even try. It's been a year of growth, but also a year of frustration. I'd argue that the growth would not occur were it not for the frustration (so bring on the frustration, I say!).

So what have I accomplished in 12 months? As you may recall, my original plan was to create a series of videos that would support learners and educators in both teaching coding as well as integrating that teaching throughout different subject areas (though I could have a long discussion about getting rid of subject areas altogether, but that's another post for another time). I wanted to give children and adults a chance to develop computational thinking without having to sacrifice anything else and without having to spend lots of money or time on PD that may or may not be helpful. I've written a few posts about this before so I won't go in depth with the why or the how, other than to say that I feel like my videos have done what I wanted them to do - as far as I can tell at least.

I was a bit disappointed about not getting as much feedback on these. I want to improve things, but it has been hard to get much in the way of what I could improve (beyond what I've thought of myself). So if you're reading this and want to help, that's one thing you could do - there are some feedback forms on the first few videos. The reach of the videos has been alright - my first two videos had 1200 and 700 approximate views as of this writing, though my 3rd and 4th were hovering around 150 while the fifth is still under 100. I also only made five videos, and had hoped I'd be up around 20 by now. Making videos takes a long time and I've had other things going on in the background this past year. That being said, I'm happy with what I've accomplished, but want to continue with these videos. I'm starting a 6th, but progress is slow. Here is the playlist of all five videos (and if you're reading this in the future, hopefully there are more than 5!):

If this were the only thing I did this past year, I'd probably feel a bit bittersweet about the whole thing. But it wasn't. I've also had two side projects on the go and one of them has probably outshone these videos (it certainly has got me WAY more views on my YouTube channel): Digital Breakouts.  What started as an activity at my school turned into me being known as the Digital Breakout guy in New Zealand. I've made 22 Digital Breakouts to this point with more in the pipeline. I'm pretty amazed by this. I've presented on this topic in three different countries and have gotten TONS of positive feedback with them - even though they do tend to be quite difficult. These breakouts have been a great way to connect with other educators (because making a breakout digitally is fairly straightforward and has been replicated by many). I feel like this is a great way to keep learner engagement and teach them skills that may not be assessed by any curriculum, but that will benefit them in the long run. This is definitely something I'm looking to continue, and I've already recruited at least one person to assist me in doing so. I can imagine this being a bit part of what I do going forward and it was originally a way for me to add a few views to my YouTube channel (though it probably contributes to close to 90% of the views I get).

The third part of my project was actually started because I had seen one of my friend's projects (the amazing Mrs Priestley & her What's 'App'ening Newsletter) and because I wanted a way to try and get more people looking at my videos. I started a newsletter of my own called The Monthly Maker. I had a lot of things I'd like to share, so wanted to use this as a platform to do a few things, including, spotlighting Maker Spaces throughout New Zealand, sharing Design Thinking tips and some featured Digital Breakouts, as well as various other tips around Maker Education.

This has proven to be quite an undertaking. I first started making a video or post for each idea, and that took time. For the second issue I cut that back a bit, but was still swamped with things to do. My plan going forward is to recruit some other Kiwi educators to help me build a lasting publication. I have not been able to get issues out for June and July this year due to reports and being extremely busy with life and other such things. I am on track to finish the next issue soon though.

All in all, I'm pleased with how much I've managed to accomplish in 12 months. The upside to all of this is that I've come up with a few more great ideas that are worth working on. As I've mentioned in other posts, I feel energized to do more now that I am a part of the Innovator Community.  I'm looking forward to my next project and to continuing on the three that I've already started. Big things are happening and I owe a lot of that to the Innovator Program, so to those who do all the work behind the scenes, I say Thank You! Here's looking forward to what the next 12 months brings...