What should be the purpose of technology?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the purpose of education and more importantly why do we do what we do. Technology is one of those things that I question. I often wonder why we use the tools we use? Are they used to be helpful? Are they used because we saw it at a conference or on Pinterest? Do we use them because a child has asked to try it?

For me it doesn’t matter what type of technology you are using but more why are you using it? This year we have used Dash and Dots to teach coordinate grid systems to grade 1’s, we have to use Makey Makey kits with the grade fives and sixes to discuss electricity and the idea around the inquiry process, and have even started to dabble in Microbits to help students with space and coding. All of these ideas are great (at least in my opinion, but I am a little bias). However, it isn’t the tool per se but what that tool has allowed the classrooms to do. For me, technology is an extension of learning. It allows me to do things with my classroom that I couldn’t do in the past. Let us take a look at the Makey Makey:

For this lesson we wanted the students to learn about design thinking and the inquiry process. For this, the students learned what Makey Makey was, considered an audience and then made a game, or a device for the audience to interact with at the Halloween fair. At first, some of the projects didn’t work out as planned but then the students did more research and revised their thoughts and ideas. Now Design thinking and inquiry isn’t new. It isn’t even something that needs to have the technology but what the Makey Makey kits allowed was for them to have an interesting purpose and also create something that would be interactive and fun. At the same time, they also learned about coding, logic, teamwork and the purpose of our lesson design thinking. 

I mentioned the Dash and Dots. For these students in grade 1, they were learning about directions. Directions can be taught by having them move around the room and learn left and right but instead, we decided to play a game called capture the kingdom (I got this idea from Jacob Lee off of Youtube). So now students are interacting with Dash and learning their directions at the same time learning to subitize, add simple numbers and work collaboratively. It was also a great introduction to coding. 

Both of these examples show that technology is great but it really is the purpose behind what we do as educators that matters.  So as you read all these great ideas or look up information about the latest tool to use always think about this, what is my purpose and will this (insert technology) be helpful to extend the learning of my students. 

Love to hear your thoughts on this.


We have always done it this way

I have recently been thinking about this phrase, a lot. The main reason is that I feel like as teachers we believe that this statement is true and yet the system we teach in continues to do things a certain way and to be fair hasn’t really changed since its inception.

I have been watching the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed”. The writer of the documentary mentions that he looks at his children’s reaction to school and tells them that one day this will all be worthwhile. However, the more he has invested in the documentary the more he has started to realize that the things he says about school are slowly becoming a lie.

The documentary states that “Most children today will grow up not being able to find a job.” For the most part, our parents grew up, learned facts and were able to settle into a job. Now students go to school, then to university and may not even get the job they want. Even worse they may end up with a job they didn’t even need to go to school for.

As I said, school has been about learning facts, given by the teacher. Those facts are assessed and then given a mark to show the students how well they have learned. Sure we have moved the aesthetics of school (e.g. groups, changed the furniture, we even have more technology) but the fundamental ways in which “school is” are still ingrained in our system.

I asked this question on Twitter:

Just doing some thinking. What is one thing you have changed/reevaluated in your practice and wonder why you ever did it in the first place? #edchat #Peel21st #loguefos— Jonathan So (@MrSoclassroom) February 4, 2019

Responses ranged from asking more questions, giving marks, waiting to the end of the learning process for assessment, to even more ideas around stickers for rewards, reading booklets. It showed me that there are things that teachers are thinking and changing.

For me, my greatest change was when I moved to a gradeless system and gave more authority to my students. I saw a huge growth in my students but more importantly, I saw students take charge in their learning. They weren’t there because it was something they had to do or told they had to attend. They came to school because they wanted to be there.

The world is an amazing place and school needs to honour that amazingness. For me, School needs to be a place where students want to be there, where they want to learn and explore.

I am not saying let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater but more let us rethink why we do the things we do. The major problem is we are teaching students information that we don’t know if they will need or not. The world is changing faster than we as educators can keep up. The skills we may have thought important need to be reevaluated. But more importantly, as educators, we have to think about the purpose of everything we do.

Interestingly enough I followed up my essential question with this one.

Doing some more thinking. What has been the best thing you have ever done in regards to your teaching practice? #edchat #peel21st #loguefos
— Jonathan So (@MrSoclassroom) February 5, 2019

I loved the responses that I got from this and it truly created some great motivation to continue in education.

I loved how the documentary ended, “With all of the schools, we saw, out of all the truly great innovative thinking, the one common thread was that students seemed to be working on things with a sense of purpose.”

As educators, we need to constantly think about our students. Education is messy, learning is messy and not one way is meant or is best for every student but if we continue to do things for the sake of doing things then we will fail all of our students

Teacher Clarity is a right of all students

According to John Hattie, it is a right for students to know what they will be assessed and taught. Honestly, I never thought about it from that perspective but I would have to agree. He further mentions that our marks and evaluations can affect the progress, choice paths and dreams of our students.

This got me thinking about why going gradeless is such an important endeavour to pursue. Hattie mentions that teacher clarity has a .75 effect size (anything over .4 is considered great). That is huge! But it makes sense. If students understand what the teacher is evaluating and what they will be learning then they can and will be successful.

How many times have we said to ourselves or colleagues, “but I taught it! Why don’t they get it?” I know I have done this so many times that I can’t even begin to count. It is one of the reasons that I moved to a feedback based assessing the program and eventually to a gradeless classroom.

Now I know we also have the curriculum and I guess we can say these communicate the learning but 1) these standards are not written for students and 2) these standards aren’t even clear sometimes for teachers. Hattie talks about learning intentions. Here are some key ideas to think about:

1) learning intentions should be shared with students so that students understand then and what success looks like

2) learning does not happen in a neat, linear sequence; therefore, the cascade from the curriculum aim through the achievement objective to the learning intention is something complex

3) learning intentions and activities can be grounded it one activity can contribute to more than one learning intention or one learning intention may need several activities for students to understand it fully

4) learning intentions are what we intend students to learn other things not planned for, so teachers need to be aware of unintended consequences

Again, when we make these intentions clear and inviting it will have a bigger impact on learning than not doing it. Margaret Smith and Mary Kay Stein write:

The key is to specify a goal that clearly identifies what the students are to know and understand about (insert subject) as a result ot their engagement in a particular lesson (Smith and Stein, 2011)

Now, this may all sound familiar to many of us in Ontario as we have had it in Growing Success but when reading Hattie’s comments it was just another aha moment to keep in mind, as well as, serve to validate and affirm that feedback based assessments, clear learning goals and success criteria are needed. We as educators have a huge impact on the world. We are the difference that makes the difference.

You may also find this graphic and interesting conversation starter.

For more info on gradeless classrooms view my posts or follow Starr Sackstein and #TTOG for more information.

Is understanding deep learning, surfacing learning and transferring knowledge the answer?

I know its a long title but I have been reading Hattie’s work on Visible Learning in Mathematics and it struck me that maybe our conversations around rote or conceptual is all wrong.

Now to behonest, I think that the conversations about this are all wrong, to begin with as this false dichotomy pits teachers against each other and that it really has never been about rote and conceptual but Hattie’s work gave me a new aha moment to consider.

I guess before we can get any further what is surface learning, deep learning and transferring knowledge. Since I am reading Hattie’s work I will use his definitions.

Surface learning has two parts. 1) it is the initial learning of concepts and skills and 2) it goes beyond just an introductory point. It is also important to note that surface learning is not shallow learning, it still takes time and needs consolidation. This was a key point in my learning. I often saw surface learning as just that surface. Like going through the curriculum as fast as I possibly can but not really going deep with the learning. Surface learning is the beginning of a students development of learning. It is where they are exploring, listening and creating files to find the information again.

Deep learning provides students with opportunities to consolidate their understanding of concepts and procedures and make deeper connections to the ideas. In Hattie’s book, he makes reference to a familiar student aha moment about multiplication arrays and area. He mentions a student telling his teacher, “hey this is just like arrays miss!” I have seen that spark so often but I also question have I given my students enough lessons or time to have those deep learning moments.

Transferring knowledge is the hope of all teachers. Yet it is also an area I know we all comment on. Why can’t they take this information and apply it? In fact, our problem with test scores is often with questions that involve transferring knowledge.

Hattie mentions when students are able to transfer knowledge this is where real learning happens. It got me thinking of my favourite Fosnot quote:

To teach is to learn but without learning there is no teaching

This got me thinking does this mean that if teaching is about students learning and learning is about being able to transfer knowledge then teaching is the art it helping students transfer knowledge?

It was this aha moment that got me thinking that maybe our discussions should be about how much time are we spending on these three types of learning?

Now I know that being in the classroom has its unique personality and there are many, many things to consider when planning lessons but how often are we thinking about areas where our lessons are surface or deep or give opportunities for transferring to happen? It doesnt matter what your teaching style is, if you are more dialogic, direct or inquiry this question applies to all of us.

If you are like me I thought I was doing deep learning but maybe I was just extending surface learning. It is why this got me thinking do we need to put more emphasis on our purposeful planning and thinking about where in our plans and curriculum maps we are giving students the opportunities to have surface learning, deep learning and places where they can transfer knowledge.

What do you think?

Soft Eyes

This morning I was reminded of a term Stuart Shanker and Susan Hopkins use all the time, “soft eyes”.  The basic idea is to see the child and the associating behaviour through a softer lens. Now, this is not easy and this week has been one in where I have often struggled to show my own children those soft eyes. My kids have been sick one after another this week and just when they all got better my son was up all night screaming and crying. This, of course, is an automatic area where you as a parent are unregulated and like many, I lost my cool. However, last night I was reminded why having soft eyes are so important. So for the second night in a row my son woke up on the hour screaming. My first reaction was to scream in my head and instantly want to cry but instead, I went into my son’s room and held him. He instantly melted in my arms and quieted down. My wife asked me what I did and to be honest I am not too sure. However, at that moment I was reminded to always try and reframe behaviour and what having those soft eyes do to the child and myself.

Often I would have (and did the night before) lose my temper, which didn’t help the matter. In fact, my son got even worse. However, the moment I was nonthreatening and calmly approached him he quieted right down.

Now I know in the school system we have some big problems where we have to show a tougher side but to be honest most situations we don’t. “Soft eyes” helps us show that compassionate side of us as teachers. It helps you stay regulated and most importantly it has a bigger effect on students behaviour than taking that tougher line. When I remember “soft eyes”, I am also reminded that all children want to be good. I don’t think you will ever find a child who purposely goes out of their way to be evil or mean. Their behaviour is often rooted in reasons and yes I know as teachers we have so many things to juggle but you will continue to build better relationships with children when you remember those soft eyes. Just something I was pondering this morning. Love to hear your thoughts.


If you are interested in reading more here is some great resource for all teachers to look at:


Dear Colleagues……….. You are Amazing!

I wrote a letter very similar to this almost 7 years ago when we were going through some education struggles here in Ontario but with the most recent struggles that we are about to face I feel like this message needs to be said again. Even if you are not facing challenges like we are in Ontario I hope this message resonates with you as you start your year.

Dear Colleagues,

I want to start off by recognizing that you are truly amazing.  I have never been more proud to be an educator as I am today. Our profession is truly one of the most amazing professions in the world.

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Sure it has its challenges, more so in the last couple of months but even without this, we have always had these challenges. We face an ever-changing demographic and world and navigate it with tremendous professionalism and poise. However, as challenging as it can be it is also one of the most rewarding professions. Today I want to remind you of those moments, to challenge you to hold on to them and to strive to make more.

It isn’t every day that we get to see smiling faces that greet us every morning as if we are superheroes. It isn’t every day that we get to see a child learn something for the very first time (i.e, learning to read, learning to recognize their name, learning to self-reg or even mature right before your own eyes). There is nothing as rewarding as seeing a student come back to you and thank you for being there, for listening, for sparking their learning and growth. I know we have all had “that” teacher and even as I write this I smile at the influence of a great teacher in my life. In our profession, we continue to be that teacher even when we don’t expect it.

So why do I remind you of this? In the last couple of weeks, I feel that our profession is at a critical stage of development. We are being attacked, as a profession and as human beings. Our government continues to deny our learning, our judgment, and our professionalism. And it is tiring, it is frustrating and it continues to make me angry every day. However, I was reminded yesterday by John Spencer’s keynote address that when we are faced with challenges it is a reminder that we need to be even more innovative.

You may at the moment question why I say let’s be more innovative, you may say but it may cost me my job but I want to remind you that you are AMAZING! You entered this profession to help, to mold, to change and make a difference and you continue to do this no matter what the political landscape is or has become. We do this because we care because we have and always will put students first.

I started this letter by saying I have never been more proud of my profession and I will conclude with that. I want to remind you that you are Amazing! That you make the difference, that you will always make a difference. Teachers are always needed and no matter what we will be needed. So as the climate will continue to get worse (and trust me I think it will) hold on to those special moments, hold on to those stories, those students, and those smiles. Continue to innovate, to be the best you can be, to shine bright because that is what will be remembered.

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Sense of Number versus Number sense

I know I have talked and written about this extensively over the past 12 years but it seems in Ontario this age-old argument is coming back with a vengeance.

Now some may say that my title is misleading that there really is no difference but over the past couple of years I have really thought hard about this very topic. Over these years I have seen students come into my classroom with amazing fact recall. In fact, I have never seen a community that has spent countless hours practising math facts and algorithms. But I have also seen over this time I have also seen students have a lack of what those facts truly mean.

Our new government is calling for a “back to basics” and let’s get rid of “discovery math” but all of this is rhetoric by politicians who don’t understand how students development a sense of number. I see it in my own daughter. Izzy has trouble in math for numerous reasons, one of which is a low working memory but another is her understanding of place value. For Izzy, she is reworking on understanding unitization, grouping, and counting by fives and tens. At the moment she is playing Duck Duck Moose and app that helps build those foundational skills.

But back to my classroom experience. Many of my students struggled with the very same problems that Izzy has. They struggle to understand part-whole relationships in number, they struggle to understand estimation skills and most importantly they struggle with understanding reasonability of number. And now I think back to the thinking of our Governments call. They fear that this generation cannot do the math, they fear they don’t know how to make quick change but the reality is they have no sense of number or how our number system works.

When I think about how students learn I think about Dr. Alex Lawson’s work on developmental learning. This is also a great article that she has written: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/ww_modelling_proficiency.pdf .

I don’t have many answers right now but I do know that learning of mathematics needs to be a balanced approach. Math needs skills but they need to be developed properly.

As students are developing skills trying ideas like Which one Doesn’t Belong, Building spatial sense, Estimation 180 or even Math Before Bed. All of these are amazing activities to help your students build a sense of number. Combine these activities with rich problems and then purposeful practise and now we are building students up to be successful mathematicians.

So as we plan and think about our math curriculum over the summer I encourage you to think about how we are making our students think about numbers along with teaching number sense. A final thought as well, as math teachers continue to teach as I know you teach. You are strong individuals with sound pedagogy. Show students what mathematics is about, how it is a beautiful language, how it is comprised of beautiful and elegant thinking. That it isn’t just rules and magic tricks. Please do not get discouraged by politicians or other professions that have no idea how children learn. In the end, be true to yourself no matter what.