Choosing the (digital) pedagogical tool fit for the learning

source: @byrev

The list of digital technologies that might be used for teaching and learning is extensive. It includes: LMSs (Learning Management Systems); MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses); BYOD (bring your own device); BYOT (bring your own technology); BYOC (bring your own connectivity); makerspaces; robotics; digital portfolios; online discussion forums; blogging platforms; wikis, microblogging; back channels; audio recording and music making; image and video editing; creation of infographics, slideshows, and presentations; digital storytelling; social media; collaboration tools; mobile apps; game-based learning and environments; coding and computer programming; augmented and virtual realities; technologies for creating physical or virtual 3D models; gesture-based computing; learning analytics and statistical analysis software; online authoring tools; wearable technology; affective computing; rubric generators; quizzes; online response systems such as polls and surveys; video conferencing; cloud computing; and student feedback tools such as Turnitin, GradeMark, and PeerMark.

E-learning technologies are sometimes defined as asynchronous (any-time) or synchronous (real-time). Flipped learning is that in which traditional teacher instruction is delivered between classes via online video or presentation technologies, and class time is used for application and collaboration. Blended learning melds traditional classroom pedagogies with online learning tools and environments. Rhizomatic learning, a loose appropriation of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome in an educational context, is non-linear and not predetermined (Cormier, 2008; Koutropoulos, 2017) and heutagogical learning is self-determined (Hase & Kenyon, 2000, 2007; Netolicky, 2016). Beetham (2013a) describes e-learning as learner-centred experience that allows learners more control over the time, place, and pace of their learning and the opportunity to connect with learning communities worldwide, much like the experience of many teachers who use social media for networking and learning.

I’ve been doing some reading since I recently posted my initial thoughts about digital pedagogy and I am reassured that scholars tend to agree that pedagogy should drive the use of technologies, rather than technologies driving the way teaching and learning happens, or as an end in themselves. Digital technologies and methods are mostly seen as part of a teacher’s arsenal of tools for teaching curriculum content, skills, and understandings.

Laurillard (2013) states that, while the scope and style of pedagogy changes as technology changes, no one has yet shown that we need to change our understanding of how students learn. Higgins (2014), however, argues that technology has changed what we learn and how we learn.

The changing digital technology landscape has led to educators attempting to personalise and gamify learning, to construct open online learning environments and self-directed learning opportunities, to leverage students’ personal mobile devices for learning, and to utilise technologies to facilitate processes such as analysis, collaboration, communication, and creation. Dichev and Dicheva (2017), however, found that even though gamification in education is a growing phenomenon, practice has outpaced research and we do not know enough about how to effectively gamify education or even whether gamifying education is beneficial. Additionally, online learning such as that via MOOCs can be overwhelming and confusing to those without highly-evolved skills in managing their connectivity (Beetham, 2013b). This brings into question the equity of technologies. Who has access? Who dominates? Who becomes lost in the system or excluded from it?

Many authors note that teachers should not assume that because students are surrounded by technology they are savvy, confident, ethical, or safe users of it. Safe, ethical use of technology needs to be guided and explicitly taught, as do skills such as online collaboration and evaluating the quality of available information. Students need the skills and aptitudes to sustain engagement with digital learning, especially if it is self-directed and self-paced.

Most proponents of digital learning base their use of technologies on traditional pedagogy. Good pedagogical design, traditional or digital, ensures that there is alignment between the curriculum we teach, the teaching methods we use, the learning environment we choose, and the assessment procedures we adopt (Biggs, 1999). Importantly, a role remains for teachers as expert designers of learning (Laurillard, 2013; Selwyn, 2016) who establish learning tasks, supportive environments for learning, and conducive forms of social classroom relations. Hunter (2015) suggests the following questions to teachers:

  • Where is the pedagogy?
  • What is the content?
  • How is your choice or the students’ choice of particular technology tools going to enhance learning?

So, we need to start with the desired learning outcomes. Curriculum design comes before pedagogy, which comes before technology. Then we choose the pedagogical tool fit for the learning purpose.

It cannot be assumed, however, that teachers, even those who are tech-savvy, know how to best use technologies for pedagogical purposes. Lei (2009) found that although pre-service teachers are often digital natives who use technology extensively for themselves, they lack the knowledge, skills, and experiences to integrate technology into classrooms to help them teach and to help their students learn, even when they recognise the importance of doing so. Teachers can leverage digital technologies within a pedagogical frame, but only when we have the knowledge and understanding of available technologies and their pedagogical potential.


Beetham, H. (2013a). Designing for active learning in technology-rich contexts. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.31-48. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Beetham, H. (2013b). Designing for learning in an uncertain future. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.258-281. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Society for Research in Higher Education and Open University Press.

Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic education: Community as curriculum. Innovate 4(5).

Dichev, C., & Dicheva, D. (2017). Gamifying education: what is known, what is believed and what remains uncertain: a critical review. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education14(1).

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogyultiBASE In-Site, 5(3), 1-10.

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2007). Heutagogy: A child of complexity theory. Complicity: An international journal of complexity and education4(1).

Higgins, S. (2014). Critical thinking for 21st-century education: A cyber-tooth curriculum? Prospects44(4), 559-574.

Hunter, J. (2015). Technology integration and high possibility classrooms: Building from TPACK. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Koutropoulos, A. (2017). Rhizomes of the classroom: Enabling the learners to become curriculum. In S. P. Ferris & H. Wilder (Eds.), Unplugging the classroom: Teaching with technologies to promote students’ lifelong learning, pp.103-118. Cambridge, MA: Chandos Publishing.

Laurillard, D. (2013). Forward to the second edition. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.) Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.), pp.xvi-xviii. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Lei, J. (2009). Digital natives as preservice teachers: What technology preparation is needed? Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, 25(3), 87-97.

Netolicky, D. M. (2016). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 1(4), 270-285.

Selwyn, N. (2016). Education and technology: Key issues and debates. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Metaphors for digital spaces: Considering Westworld

the Westworld landscape (source:

You really do make a terrible human being. And I mean that as a compliment. ~ Maeve, Westworld

The Western genre involves representations of the powerful and the powerless, the heard and the voiceless, the abusers and the abused. In the romanticised landscape of the Western, heroes (usually white and male) overcome the challenges of the frontierland. Historical brutalities are often overlooked in favour of myth and legend; the Wild West is one of imagination rather than reality.

In an open access, peer-reviewed paper published this month, Cyborgs, desiring-machines, bodies without organs, and Westworld: Interrogating academic writing and
scholarly identity, I use the HBO television series Westworld as a lens for exploring academic identity and writing. The Westworld setting is a theme park, called Westworld, a kind of real virtual reality that the very rich can frequent on their vacations, for a hefty fee. The theme park recreates the idealistic American desert frontier, full of sweeping vistas, damsels, brothels, gun-slinging bad guys, and cowboy heroes. It drags the Western genre and setting out of the archives, dusts it off, and breathes new life into it by marrying it with science fiction. Like much speculative fiction, it takes our current world and presses a hypothetiocal fast forward: What if technology evolves to a point where we can bring multi-player computer games to life in theme parks populated with robots that appear and act human?

The Westworld universe is one that brings together the Western genre—its hopes and its atrocities—with technology. The guests to the Westworld park aspire to play a part in this world as hero or villain. (In the show we mainly follow the arc of male guests, so it is their desires we see pursued and borne out.) The hosts of the theme park are cyborgs who follow narrative loops designed to allow guests to act out their darkest fantasies without guilt or consequence.

A recent blog post by Benjamin Doxtdator has me thinking more about the notion of the digital frontier, and about how we envisage ourselves in digital spaces. In his post, Benjamin explored the metaphor of the internet as a frontier-style landscape that can be mastered or explored. He argues that this is an unhelpful and even dangerous metaphor. He proposes the lens of surveillance capitalism as an alternative; here I imagine Foucauldian panopticism, the telescreens of Orwell’s 1984, and the Eyes of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Benjamin’s post got me thinking about what we might glean from considering the Westworld world as a metaphor for digital space, and the human characters as representations of how people and organisations interact with that space. The park’s creators manipulate the landscape and the cyborg characters in order to engage, entertain, and satisfy their guests, while the guests treat the park with egomaniacal entitlement. Some guests pursue exciting story arcs for themselves, while others leave their morals at the door as they live out depraved fantasies of violence and abuse.

The show presents the cyborg characters as more human than the humans, perhaps encouraging us to question our relationship with technology and its dehumanising influence. It also asks us to consider the ways in which we feel free to interact with digital spaces where we feel we can be either free from our non-digital selves, or to enact alternate identities online. Westworld, viewed this way, presents us with a humanity with which we don’t want to associate and provides a warning to its audience about the dangers of interacting unethically and unthinkingly with technologies.

Meanwhile the cyborg characters, with whom we are encouraged to empathise, are awakening and beginning to rise up against those who oppress and violate them. The show lays bare inequities and power imbalances in technological arenas. It presents a critique of the powerful puppet masters and privileged users of tech, questioning what people do with their privilege and with technology when there are no checks and balances. Westworld‘s artificial frontierland encourages us to reconsider what we might do in digital spaces, and to what ends.

In Westworld it is the cyborgs, the underdogs and the underclass, who provide us with potential for resistance and who begin to question their world. We are constantly, however, reminded of the ways in which the cyborgs are created, controlled, and sometimes cast aside by those who run the Westworld world.

At a time when I am working on a framework for digital pedagogy at my school, I am reflecting on the notion of metaphor. I agree with Benjamin Doxtdator that conceptualising technology as a playground is dangerous. How do we want our children and students to see and interact with the world of technology? In a world of big data, cyber attacks, and alternative facts, perhaps it is with a combination of enthusiasm, caution, fear, confidence and criticality.

Tweeting and blogging: Selfish, self-serving indulgences?

Narcissus by Caravaggio

This week I’ve been mulling over a post in the TES written by Claire Narayanan in which she argues that teachers’ time is precious and they should quietly get on with their jobs, not spend time writing about it. In encouraging teachers to be ‘do-rus not gurus’ she writes:

In a world where self-promotion has rather shamelessly crept into education, the real heroes are not those who we may follow on Twitter, read about in leadership manuals or hear speak at conferences, but those who are at the chalkface.

These are the teachers who seek no recognition beyond a set of decent GCSE results; a thank-you from their headteacher every now and again and, best of all: “Thanks Sir/Miss, I enjoyed that lesson”.

They haven’t got time to attend every single TeachMeet in their region, read every piece of research written, attend every conference around the country on their subject area or update their blog. Does that mean they don’t care as much as those who do? No chance – they’re too busy marking and planning.

I found this interesting and a little challenging. Of course no-one attends ‘every’ TeachMeet, reads ‘every piece of research written’, or attends ‘every conference around the country’, but the suggestion that ‘real teachers at the chalkface’ are too busy marking and planning to entertain attending professional development, reading research, or blogging, implies that those who do make the time for these activities are perhaps neglecting their teaching jobs. Otherwise, how would they have the time? It also implies that these activities aren’t a valuable use of teachers’ time.

I agree with Claire that we shouldn’t pursue gurus and heroes in education. My PhD reveals the importance of leadership that is deliberately invisible and empowering, rather than visible, focused on the leader, or driven by outward performance. I’ve spoken of the silent work of coaches and leaders. And as a full-time teacher and school leader who also tweets, blogs, and writes peer-reviewed papers and chapters, I know the tricky balance between self care, time with family and friends, and service to the profession and to my students.

I wonder, though, about the implication that those who are on Twitter or presenting at conferences are shameless self-promoters or narcissists seeking heroic guru status. Many of those who tweet and blog, I would argue, do so because they are interested in learning from others, sharing their own perspectives and experiences, and engaging with educators from around the world.

Part of what keeps me blogging is that it helps me think through ideas and get feedback from others. Another part is how useful I find the blogs of other people in helping or challenging my thinking. I also see blogging and academic writing as a service to the profession and a way to reclaim the narrative of education from those normally at its apex. It is why I am involved in the Flip the System series of books, which offer and value the voices of school practitioners—those working at the whiteboard, in the playground, and in the boardroom—that are often ignored in education reform, and yet are crucial voices to drive change in education. As Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber suggested in the first Flip book, teachers and school leaders can be agentic forces in changing education from the ground up by participating in global education conversation.

When I asked Claire on Twitter whether she saw all who tweet, share, blog, and present as shameless self-promoters, she responded, “Not at all. I’m all for sharing and learning. We all get on with the job in the way that suits us.” We seem to agree that different things work for different people. I don’t expect everyone to use their time as I do. There are benefits and costs to choosing to spend evenings, weekends, and holidays on professional activities or presenting at conferences. Last year I paid the price of going too hard for too long without a break.

For me, social media provides an avenue for sharing, learning, and connecting. I can tweet out my thoughts into the nighttime abyss, and somewhere, someone in the world is there to respond. I found this especially useful during the isolation of my PhD. I connected via social media with generous, supportive academics, researchers, and doctoral candidates from around the world who provided crucial advice and moral support.

My understanding of the world is broader for the conversations I have with those around Australia and the world, on social media and at conferences. These conversations and relationships allow me to see outside of my own context and my own perspective. They spill sometimes into productive collaborations that shape my thinking. I wrote here that:

In a world in which we are more connected than ever, we can be buoyed, empowered and supported by our connections…. We can pay forward and give back. We can … share our knowledge, contribute our time to help others on their journeys, listen to others’ stories, and celebrate others’ milestones.

Do I think we should acknowledge and celebrate the quiet daily work of committed teachers? Absolutely. Do I think we should encourage teachers to be mindful of workload, wellbeing, and self care? Yes, yes, yes. Do I think this is mutually exclusive from professional learning, engaging with research, interacting on social media, or writing blogs? No, I do not.

Teacher workload vs. student learning

As teachers, our jobs are about supporting students in their learning and development. Teachers are constantly in service of their students, their students’ families, and their school community. But we are also human beings who have bodies, families, and relationships.

On Friday I missed my self-imposed weekly blogging deadline because I was up past my eyeballs in English exam papers. As I marked, I was wrestling with a dilemma: increasing my marking  workload with a view to student learning, or protecting my wellbeing by streamlining the marking process.

When you have 120 papers to mark in a short time, the easiest way to do that is to put a mark only on each paper, and publish a markers’ report that synthesises comments and feedback to the group. The long, hard way to do it is to annotate and write a comment on every paper. My dilemma was that, while a marker’s report is useful for students, I believe that annotations and comments on papers will help students to understand why they got the mark they did and how to improve for next time. That annotating and commenting on every paper takes much longer and results in more time and more pressure, while taking time away from other work streams and from my family. The other nagging feeling I had was that many students may not engage with the comments I was taking so long to formulate, making the whole lengthy exercise a waste of time. My experience with handing back exam papers, however, tells me that students can’t often make the connections between their work and a marker’s report; the annotations and comments can help them make sense of where they can improve.

In the end, I couldn’t stop myself from annotating and commenting. I decided to carve out more time (day, evening, and weekend) so that I could provide students with information they could use to help them do better next time. Students will have a number of assessments, plus their end of year exams and their tertiary entrance exams, still to come. As a teacher, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do what I hoped would be helpful for students in preparing them for the learning that comes next.

But it has meant that I’ve spent less time with my kids, less time looking after myself (I tend to find less time to make meals for myself and to exercise while under a heavy marking deadline), my neck has seized up (probably thanks to hours spent cocking my head as I read and write on papers), and have come down with a cold (it’s winter here so perhaps that is coincidence rather than evidence of compromised immunity).

While exams are a summative assessment, when my students receive their exams back, they will be led through a formative process of reflection, action, conferencing with me, and target setting. This process is based on the UK’s Assessment Reform Group’s summary of the characteristics of assessment that promotes learning. According to the ARG, assessment that promotes learning:

  • is embedded in a view of teaching and learning of which it is an essential part;
  • involves sharing learning goals with students;
  • aims to help students to know and to recognise the standards they are aiming for;
  • involves students in self-assessment;
  • provides feedback which leads to students recognising their next steps and how to take them;
  • is underpinned by confidence that every student can improve; and
  • involves both teacher and students reviewing and reflecting on assessment data.

Student engagement with their own work, its feedback, the marker’s report, and subsequent setting of next steps and how to take them, can help summative assessments like exams become learning opportunities. My students will be required to act on the feedback, as recommended by much feedback literature. My annotations and comments on students’ papers will form part of this process of engagement, reflection, and action.

As teachers, we often find it impossible to compromise our desire to help students, even if it means sacrificing our own time and wellbeing to do so. It’s why we need to make good decisions about where to expend our efforts. We also need to carve out time for self-care when we can, and find ways to nourish ourselves during the peaks of our workload. I’m looking forward to an overseas family holiday in the next holidays!

Digital Pedagogy


I have worked in one-to-one schools for most of my 17-and-a-bit year teaching career, and I’ve tended to be an experimenter with and adopter of learning technologies. I’ve been known to use online discussion forums to extend class discussion around English and Literature texts and concepts. I’ve used class blogs, wikis, and backchannels as collaborative learning spaces or expansions of the classroom. I use Twitter, Google Docs, Voxer, and blogging for my own learning and development. I have participated in MOOCs (massive open online courses).

I’ve recently been considering digital pedagogy from more of an organisation and systems level, as I look into how to refine my school’s use of technologies as tools for learning and teaching. As I begin a search of what research literature might offer us in this realm (please, if you have a seminal paper or reference here – pass it my way!) I have a couple of reflections. One is that, as technology moves quickly and research moves slowly (from data generation to publication), research on digital pedagogy needs to be treated with caution. Research around technology is emergent and fast changing; by the time it is published, it may be well out of date.

My other initial reflection is that there seems to be a discrepancy between the use of digital technologies promoted by enthusiastic teachers, conferences, and technology companies, and the discussion about education technologies in academic research. The former often promotes the possibilities of technologies for learning as future-building and positive. The latter tends to reveal a more cautious or critical approach to what digital technologies can offer teaching and learning.

It’s not surprising that tech giants promote themselves to schools, but there are some worrying reports that tech corporates, such as Edmodo and Google, use schools and students to collect and track big data. Corporate agendas are something we might consider when thinking about how technologies infiltrate or colonise our schools.

Neil Selwyn (in his 2016 book Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates) points to the limitations of digital technologies, arguing that there is a lack of genuine diversity in the educational opportunities provided by educational technologies, but rather more of the same. He notes that “any ‘individualisation’ or ‘personalisation’ involves fitting individuals around preconfigured outcomes and expectations rather than offering genuinely bespoke education. … an individual is not actively self-determining but conforming to the requirements and expectations of a mass system” (p.161).

I share Selwyn’s cautiousness around technology in schools when it is seen as a shiny new thing or an end in itself. I am more comforabtle when digital pedagogy is about choosing the tool fit for the purpose, aligned with learning objectives. Technology is part of the teacher and learner’s arsenal, not the end point in themselves.

Additionally, while digital pedagogies are often viewed with much hope for their possibilities, the realities seem to be more disappointing. Marte Blikstad-Balas and Chris Davies (in their recent Oxford Review of Education paper ‘Assessing the educational value of one-to-one devices: Have we been asking the right questions?’) show that one-to-one devices are often positioned as having benefits to pedagogical change, development of future skills, and efficiencies and cost savings. (Interestingly, at my school the photocopying bill did not decrease with the move to one-to-one devices.) In looking at three schools (two in the UK and one in Norway), Blikstad-Balas and Davies found some benefits of one-to-one devices, but these tended to be focused on convenience, instrumental use, and functionality, rather than pedagogy. The three schools studied raised concerns including ad hoc teacher enthusiasm and uptake of one-to-one-devices, and teacher scepticism around implementation of digital technologies as part of pedagogy. Students reported feeling either pressured to use devices they didn’t want to use, for purposes they didn’t see as valuable, being distracted from their learning by one-to-one devices, and finding one-to-one devices unreliable. Year 11 and 12 students reported using their one-on-one devices for whatever they wanted (such as social media and online gaming), which was often not what the teacher was instructing. These findings are a sober reminder to schools about the realities of implementing educational technologies.

The educational world is saturated with information and promotions of various digital technologies. The 2016 Horizon Report for Higher Education, for instance, identifies a number of future trends and technologies predicted to influence education. Those working in education institutions need a way to make sense of the digital noise. Selwyn’s 2016 book Is technology good for education? provides useful questions to ask ourselves when considering digital pedagogy (p.24):

  • What is actually new here?
  • What are the unintended consequences or second-order effects?
  • What are the potential gains? What are the potential losses?
  • What underlying values and agendas are implicit?
  • In whose interests does this work? Who benefits in what ways?
  • What are the social problems that digital technology is being presented as a solution to?
  • How responsive to a ‘digital fix’ are these problems likely to be?

At my school we are working with a purposeful and transparent frame for making decisions about digital technologies and pedagogies. This frame is based around our strategic intents for our students, and our beliefs around learning, good teaching, and the core business of schools. No matter what the latest tech fad or shiny device, any pedagogy needs to start with the purpose of the learning and the design of curriculum. Pedagogy first. Digital if and when appropriate.

Is formative assessment overvalued?

Call me late to the party, but last night I was surprised to see this tweet from Alfie Kohn stating that formative assessment is overvalued. I agree with his latter comment that data to see if students are improving, or have improved, are worthless until we’ve asked ‘improved at what?’, but I don’t understand the connection between the two parts of the tweet. My hunch is that my understanding of formative assessment in practice is different to Kohn’s. In this post I’ll explain my own take on formative assessment.

(Disclaimer – I understand that a tweet is limited in its 140 character form. I’m using my understanding of the tweet as a jumping off point for this post.)

From the seminal 1998 paper of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, ‘Inside the black box’, to subsequent work by these authors, and others, formative assessment as an evidence-based, rigorous feedback process is well-established.

Feedback can be defined as information provided by an agent regarding aspects of performance or understanding (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Wiliam (2016) notes that anyone (teacher, learner, peer, parent) can be an agent of feedback, and that the most powerful agent of feedback is likely to be the student who takes responsibility for their own learning.

The purpose of feedback, according to Hattie and Timperley (2007) is to reduce the discrepancy between current and desired understanding. Information is used by students or teachers for improvement in an interactive dialogue between teacher and learners so that learners can become more expert and more responsible in guiding and furthering their own learning (Black & Wiliam, 2010). The interactivity, and the activity, are important. Teachers use feedback to make adjustments to planning and instruction. Students become active, empowered agents of their own learning as they self-assess, receive feedback, and act on it. Formative assessment is based in a belief that every learner can improve.

Feedback can have a significant positive influence on student learning and achievement (Stiggins & DuFour, 2009; Wiliam, 2011a, 2011b, 2016), but it is linked to emotions, relationships and environment; it can be accepted, modified, or rejected; and it can have positive or negative effects on performance (see Kluger & DeNisi, 1996).

Formative assessment involves feedback that is continuous; specific to goal, standards and task; descriptive rather than numerical or via grades; occuring within a learning context; and acted on by the learner (such as through self-assessment, re-doing the task, or outlining next steps).

It is information and interpretations from assessments, not numbers or grades, that matter (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Numerical marks and grades operate as judgements, not aids to learning, and so students ignore comments where a mark is provided (Black, 2014; Black et al., 2004). Alfie Kohn argues against grades in this 2011 paper. Ruth Butler (1987, 1988) found that grades had no effect on achievement. Written comments based on the task, on the other hand, resulted in high levels of task involvement. Comments should identify what has been done well and what still needs improvement, and give guidance on how to make that improvement (Black et al., 2004; Wiliam, 2011b).

Feedback should not involve judgement of the person, positively or negatively. Butler’s research (1987, 1988) found that written praise had no effect on achievement, and Costa and Garmston (2003) note that learning cannot occur if a person feels threatened. While receiving feedback can be emotional, it should be designed to evoke cognition over emotion.

At a grass-roots level, teachers such as Starr Sackstein (2015, 2017) and Mark Barnes (2013, 2015) have been advocating for teachers to ‘throw out grades’, focusing instead on feedback practices such as conferencing, peer assessment, and self-assessment.

This previous blog post outlines some of my own practices around summative assessments, as well as a term I spent teaching Year 10 English without any marks or grades. I have recently developed my summative assessment feedback practices to ensure that students engage with their work more deeply before it is assessed, and then again once I have written comments, but before receiving their mark. In my classroom, formative assessment practices are a constant. They include myself and my students constantly engaging with their work, curriculum standards, syllabus points, rubrics, clear criteria for success, and setting of specific targets. These practices are entwined within a relational classroom environment of trust and challenge. Anecdotally, some of the best a-ha moments for my students come when they assess their own work against clear criteria, and come to their own realisations about how to improve. Over time, self-assessment becomes part of expected and lived practice for students in my classroom. This is not to say that I am a formative assessment expert; building formative opportunities takes ongoing teacher reflection, deliberate planning, and careful constant reading of the students.

Perhaps I have been embedding formative feedback practices into my teaching for so long that it seems obvious, but my thought on first seeing Kohn’s tweet was: of course we cannot look at data that might indicate improvement of learning without asking ‘improvement at what?’ Specific goals, standards, and comments on how and on what to improve, are part and parcel of the suite of practices of formative assessment.

Is formative assessment overvalued? I don’t think so. It is a fundamental way to improve learning, and also to build the capacity of the learner themselves.


Barnes, M. (2013) Role reversal: Achieving uncommonly excellent results in the student-centred classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Barnes, M. (2015). Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Black, P. J. (2014). Assessment and the aims of the curriculum: An explorer’s journey. Prospects, 44, 487-501.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8-21.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139-48.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (2010). A pleasant surprise. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 47.

Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of educational psychology79(4), 474-482.

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task‐involving and ego‐involving evaluation on interest and performance. British journal of educational psychology, 58(1), 1-14.

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2003). Cognitive coaching in retrospect: Why it persists.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research 77(1), 81-112.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory.

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.

Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grade school. Cleveland, OH: Hack Learning.

Sackstein, S. (2017). Peer Feedback in the classroom: Empowering students to be experts. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Stiggins, R., & DuFour, R. (2009). Maximizing the power of formative assessments. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(9), 640-644.

Wiliam, D. (2011a). Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Wiliam, D. (2011b) What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation37(1), 3-14.

Wiliam, D. (2016). Leadership for teacher learning: Creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all students succeed. Moorabbin, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Teaching and leading schools in a #posttruth word of #altfacts

General Hux's speech in The Force Awakens (

General Hux’s speech in The Force Awakens (source –

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. ~ Oxford Dictionary

To my continued astonishment, we are living in a post-truth world. ‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. The Trump administration in its first week seemed to impersonate the Star Wars totalitarian First Order when it claimed that it was not lying but providing the public with ‘alternative facts’. Then, gag orders were placed on a number of government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. (Hurrah for whoever tweeted rebelliously about inauguration crowds and climate change from the National Parks Service ‘Badlands National Park’ account.) 

For a Western government to blatantly deny reality is at once baffling and terrifying. Hello, propaganda. Hello, the invocation of untruths (sorry, ‘alternative facts’) to smother any unfavourable actuality.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The misuse and abuse of language and facts is something that dystopian and speculative fiction has been warning of for decades, and something that history tells us has the ability to tap into the hive mind and rally societies around a common, often chilling, cause or leader. 

In this post I’ll explore the notion of a post-truth world of alternative facts and empty emotive rhetoric, around two arenas in my own life: teaching English and Literature, and my new role at my school, which encompasses in part engagement with research across the school.

First, to teaching in a post-truth world …

With the school year beginning next week, my Year 12 English team are finalising the texts to be taught and studied this Australian academic year. We’ve been tossing up between two contemporary texts about modern issues like gender, sporting culture and bullying, but every day the news and my social media feed give me a nagging feeling, a tugging at my literary shirt sleeve, a whisper to pause, take stock, listen. And dig out a dystopian classic.

Last year we taught the 12s Fahrenheit 451, a text that portrays books as dangerous threats to government control and societal compliance. This year perhaps we should teach Orwell’s 1984. Its Ministry of Truth, that falsifies historical events, and Newspeak, a language that restricts freedom of thought, are more relevant than ever. In fact, Orwell’s novel has this week rocketed to number 1 on the Amazon best sellers list.

A more recent text also comes to mind. Lionel Shriver’s 2016 The Mandibles, set between 2029 and 2047, is an economic dystopia that imagines the USA’s collapse. In her novel, the bungling US government has little respect for its citizens. First world problems like gluten intolerance disappear as violence and poverty rise. It is Mexico that builds an electrified, computerised, constantly-surveyed fence to keep desperate Americans illegals out.

Of course as a teacher of English and Literature I teach versions of reality and multiplicity of perspectives, but that plurality doesn’t stretch to bald-faced lies for the purposes of propaganda, banning scientists from speaking, or removing language like ‘climate change’ from government policy and websites. Language matters. It shapes thought. It wields power. It’s our job as teachers to elevate our students’ capacities to engage critically with their world. To be sceptical consumers of what they see, hear and read, and to be empowered to use language as an agentic tool.

Next, to school leadership in a world of alternative facts …

I am also coming to terms with how schools might respond to this post-truth world. This is especially relevant to me as I have just begun a new role at my school (new to me and new to the school). It is a senior leadership role that encompasses the use of evidence and research to make informed decisions from the classroom to the boardroom, as well to underpin and frame pedagogy, professional learning, performance review processes and capacity building across the organisation.

In this paper published online on 18 January, Brown and Greany (2017, p.1)—thanks to Gary Jones, whose blog is a great resource in this space, for sharing it—write:

Educational evidence rarely translates into simple, linear changes in practice in the ways that what-works advocates might hope. Instead, … evidence must be combined with practitioner expertise to create new knowledge which improves decision making and enriches practice so that, ultimately, children’s learning is enhanced.

This focus on what Brown and Greany call ‘what matters’ as well as ‘what works’ resonates with me. As Jon Andrews (channelling Marilyn Cochran-Smith) reminds us, teaching is unforgivingly complex. If we schools and educators are to really engage with research, then we need to honour our own contexts and value our own wisdom of practice. Teachers and schools can and should engage with research. I’m grateful that my school is able to create a role like mine in order to elevate evidence and research, execute research initiatives, and further embed scientific thinking and data analytics into the fabric of the school a culture. I’m grateful that there are schools around the world bringing evidence, mindfulness and crticiality to their decision making and pedagogy.

In a post-truth world, how do we balance a respect for truth, evidence and reason, with an honouring of plurality, multiplicity and praxis? How might we use literature or research as vehicles for respecting perspectives, while exploring challenges and possibilities?