Back to Nature

My kids (I mean my OWN kids) have long been fans of Toca Boca. The latest offering from this Stockholm-based company is Toca Nature.

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Toca Nature presents you with a landscape you can shape to your will.  You begin with a plot of land roughly square and mysteriously floating in space. Day and night drfit by and you can rotate the landscape using the globe icon to view it from different compass directions.  You can dig depressions in the land which eventually fill up with water and are populated by fish and other wildlife. You can also raise mountains. If you keep building mountains they get higher and eventually snow will settle on their peaks. You can also plant trees. Different tree species attract different species of fauna such as woodpeckers, deer, hares, bears and foxes. These animals interact with the landscape (usually foraging for their favourite foodstuffs). It quickly becomes addictive providing food for the wildlife as they roam.


Children playing the game quickly learn that they can match the food to the animal and that sometimes it’s not a straightforward process. For example, some bears prefer blueberries and some red. Beavers won’t touch the fish but the foxes will. You can also get wolves to come if you plan the landscape well enough.








The various animals sleep and forage. Sometimes they give you a hint through strategically placed thought bubbles what food they would like. The whole thing is a lot of fun and there is an element of mystery in the game in the presence of huge footprints that can sometimes been seen on the ground, and that recalls the game’s logo as well as speaks to the potential for a future development.

My kids appreciated the orienteering possibilities in the game (it IS Swedish, after all!) By rotating the game through various degree in the globe function, you can travel across the landscape and then challenge each other to navigate back to any giving starting point.


By tapping on mushrooms, acorns, berries and fish you can replenish your stock ready to feed the animals when the natural sources of these foodstuffs become scarce. The thrill on my kids’ faces when they collected enough mushrooms to get the deer through a particularly barren period when no mushrooms appeared to be growing on the ground, was very satisfying.

Inevitably, the kids quickly want more species to be available and different landscape features (volcanoes, jungles, coral reefs, deserts!) These may be forthcoming in future editions of the app, but for now I rather like the woodland setting – especially given the current real weather outside. Definitely the best app of the season.


World War One on the iPad

If ever there was an apt day for discussing World War One on the iPad, this one would have to be pretty near the top of the list. In fifteen minutes the entire country will fall silent to remember the Fallen for the customary two minutes. It marks the high point of a year of remembrance that has found expression in art, music, drama, dance, cinema, television and the printed word. Perhaps no single act of commemoration has touched the nation more than Paul Cummins’ Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, an installation in the moat of the Tower of London consisting of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each one representing a British or colonial death during the First World War.

App writers have joined in too.  There are now more eBooks, podcasts, iTunes U courses, poster collections, music compilations, electronic games and online quizzes available on the iTunes Store than one could possibly consume in any given year, but the quality is to say the least mixed.  Although I did indulge a boyhood passion for First World War aircraft earlier in the year by downloading an app dedicated to them (and surprised myself by how much geeky knowledge about the SE5a or the Fokker DVII I still retained), even I had to admit the app was at best a filler for those of us who have a specialist interest in this esoteric subject matter.  There are some worthy collections of First World War voices, and the poetry works especially well in audio format of course.  But I remained disappointed in my search for a truly comprehensive and worthwhile (not to mention affordable) app that I could use to support conversations or lessons with students about this huge event in twentieth century history.

Happily, as the year progressed things improved.  On reflection I feel the best app currently available is the BBC History Magazine’s The First World War Story.

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This is something of a win by default.  The app is far from perfect; the maps feature is particularly disappointing in failing to take advantage of the interactive possibilities afforded by the medium (it presents just two cartographic representations of the European theatre – one from 1914 and the other from 1923 that allow one to compare the two sets of political boundaries). But the app is reasonably comprehensive – at least as far as the European theatre is concerned, and the scrollable history of the war runs to 50 parts and links to some excellent articles and audio contributions from authorities on war-related subjects.

There is also video footage to peruse, although other apps and specialist courses do this better. Whilst World War One remains without a definitive representation for teachers and others seeking to understand it using the iPad as their main source of information, The First World War Story is a worthy launching pad for further exploration, and for £4.99 it represents good value for money.

Hearkening Back to Simpler Times

This week I’ve been playing with some writing toys. I don’t think anything will tempt me away from Evernote, Pages, Book Creator and Scrivener as my main tools of choice, but I do often use other apps for the odd writing task here and there and the evidence is that students do too.  Notability, Drafts, Notes and Textilus all have their adherents at ACS, and I have found that I visit the little folder that sits next to Evernote on my home screen and that is simply titled “All Other Notes” is one of the most visited folders on my iPad. For the record, it contains Plain Text, Penultimate, PaperPort, Bamboo Paper, Moleskin, Noteshelf, Annotate+, neu.Annotate, neu.Notes+ and mental Note as well as the four listed above – and, yes, I do use all of them although, admittedly I do a lot of writing.

None of these can match for sheer fun Hanx Writer, however. I don’t necessarily think Hanx Writer was designed for anything serious, and it would probably drive me mad to have to write a serious paper on it, but it has been a delightful experience using this typewriter emulation app this afternoon while typing up notes, making lists, composing letters and otherwise wiling away a few hours catching up on what I assumed would be mundane writing tasks.

Hanx Writer comes from, Inc and via them from Tom Hanks, the American film actor and producer.  It really does nothing more than simulate the sound and look (sort of) of an old fashioned typewriter, but that’s enough for me – especially considering it’s free.  There is a suite of additional functionalities that you can buy for an extra £2.99, but most will probably be happy with the one style of typewriter and the black ink.  The in-app purchase option gives you a choice of red and blue ribbons in addition to the black and two further styles of typewriter with associated noises and typefaces. You can also change the colour of the back ground. It’s a fun app and it’s only fair to leave the last word to Hanx Writer itself!

Hanx Writer


Learning Chinese on the iPad

The summer holidays, as always, is a chance to reflect back and project forward.  The new school year starting in August will be the first where we introduce large numbers of iPad Airs, and the first where we begin the year with Casper as our MDM system.  Further afield, we have collaborate research projects set up with Hurstpierpoint College and with our sister schools in the ACS group, and invitations to present our research at several international conferences.

But I’m keenly aware of how easy it is for the researcher to become too intensely focused on the mechanics of the research process itself, and to lose sight of the connection research must have with real life.  This is a danger to which researchers whose day to day school role is in administration, not teaching, are especially susceptible and so the subject of this month’s blog is deliberately pragmatic and stems from my classroom experience teaching my weekly Chinese class.

Language teachers commonly complain that there are no decent apps for teaching language. This may be true (although the picture with all apps is so fast-changing that it is difficult to make definitive statements about anything), but it misses the point.  The conversations I have had most recently with teachers of French and Spanish at my school certainly leave me better informed about apps like Linguascope and Duolingo, but they also make it very clear that the most engaging activities that teachers appear to find effective are those where the students are using the target language incidentally, rather than as a conscious exercise in mastery.

When I was training as a language teacher more years ago than I care to mention, the prevailing (but at that point untested) thinking was that the best way to master a language was to study something other than the target language through the medium of the target language.  At International House, where I studied for an RSA Diploma in TEFL, I observed students in a film studies course whose fluency in both spoken and written academic English developed as they pursued their learning about film.  My own mother-in-law developed her English through studying a higher degree in Education. So we have known for a long time that making the target language incidental to the learning can be effective, and the lesson for teachers teaching with iPads is to make the iPad the tool to achieving tasks other than directly learning French, Spanish or, in the case of my own students, Chinese.

In my Chinese classes I have been known to set the odd quiz in Socrative, but I admit that these serve little pedagogical purpose beyond giving the students a mental break from other tasks.  The biggest benefit I have seen in quiz setting (other than giving the impression to some parents – and a recently-departed education minister – that real learning was going on when it wasn’t) is the experience it can give students in mastering test-taking techniques. But passing a test, rather than acquiring mastery of the learning the test is supposed to assess, is a very limited horizon for which to set one’s course.

This is where one needs to consult the research and adapt pedagogies and instructional strategies that we know assist language acquisition.  These include (but are not limited to) the following:

Hands-on activities
Project-based learning
Reciprocal learning
Student-centred learning
Simulations & Rôle Play
Reflect & Write
Anything involving Rhythm, Rhyme, Music & Rap
Graphic (visual) Organisers
Collaborative learning

I’ve written on most of these before, but in the context of teaching Chinese there is a resource I am prepared to endorse that I have used for about six years now and which, with a bit of tweaking, allows the teacher to cut out a lot of the donkey work involved in lesson planning.

The resource is called Chinese Pod and it started many years ago as a podcast. You could download the podcast and listen to it on your iPod as you got on with your day. It often involved conversations about topics that were in the news or of general interest to ordinary folk at the time. Therein lay an important difference between Chinese Pod and even the best textbook – it was fresh and unpredictable; relevant and topical. You couldn’t flick ahead and see what was coming. Although pre-recorded, it felt live and the presenters (typically two – a waiguoren and a native Chinese speaker) didn’t worry about the odd slip of the tongue. It had the feel of people enjoying themselves.

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Allied to the podcast was a webpage from which you could download and print off dialogues at different levels. I’m actually a great believer in dialogues as a way of learning languages. I learned Chinese this way myself and occasionally even today I find myself slipping into phrases I learned wholesale from those days. Chinese Pod’s dialogues ran the gamut from Newbie to Advanced, with pinyin support available where appropriate.  They discussed things like pop music, St Valentine’s Day and who was going to win the World Cup – the very conversations I knew my students were having in the recess playground.  

Today, these dialogues are still there on the Chinese Pod website, and subscribers can make use of Lesson MP3s, Dialogue MP3s, Audi Review MP3s or just a straightforward pdf transcript of the dialogue.  We use all of these in my classes, and my students access them via their iPads either before or during the lesson, but they also give me ideas for prompting my students to write their own dialogues, and we record or film these after they have had a chance to practise them.

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Today, students can produce sophisticated translations using Google Translate (see above – and also on their iPads in the form of an app), and can have the phrases modelled for them by a native speaker to guide their pronunciation and tones, but this really doesn’t matter. Students get a buzz out of seeing themselves and hearing themselves speaking Chinese, and if they keep the recordings, they can use themselves as revision aids or teachers in the future.   

Of course, I also encourage the students to use the Chinese keyboard on the iPad, and we have had some success in the past with the app iChinese as a way to encourage students to master the correct stroke order (although it has been admittedly mixed success as it is time-consuming – and I have to say I sometimes get stroke order wrong myself even after years of learning Chinese), but it’s probably fair to say that reading and writing Chinese are the last two skills to be mastered (albeit, there is a thrill to be seen on the students‘ faces when they manage to translate a piece of text written entirely in characters!)

To that end, there are a number of apps for both iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch that have proved effective over the years.  Here are some I still swear by.  

Apps Screenshot

The Flashcards app can be especially addictive – in a wholly positive way.  Many years ago I would spend hours on trains across China taking a pack of flashcards out my my jacket pocket and trying to commit them to memory. Those I knew I would transfer to my right-had pocket; those I didn’t, I would shuffle to the bottom of the pack and try again when they surfaced.  The Flashcards app (see screenshot below) is the modern equivalent of that. So with that in mind, I’m now going to roll the clock back and see how well I do on the advanced set.


ECIS Seville, 2014 – adios, iPad 2; bienvenido Office Suite for iPad

Seville was a lovely surprise last month.  I was there to present the current stage of my research into iPads in the classroom at the ECIS Leadership Conference but I wasn’t prepared for how stunning the city looked in the late spring sunshine and how the whole place seemed to be blooming.  I had missed the Exposition during 1992 because I was on teaching practice in Lisbon and the only weekend my tutor could fly out from London to meet with me was the same weekend my colleagues and I had earmarked for a Seville trip.  So this was catch-up time and I made the most of it.  There was a moment, sitting under an orange tree on a street terrace with my wife and children, waiting for our (world class) tapas to arrive and listening to a street quartet playing just a few yards away, when I wondered if a moment in life could be any more perfect.  Then the tapas arrived and I realised it just had done!

The conference coincided with a couple of iPad-related news items that have already begun to affect schools.  One is the withdrawal of the iPad 2, the classroom stalwart that has served us so well since March 2011.  From now on this device will no longer be manufactured and schools will have to choose other options.  For schools such as ours in which iPads are leased, not bought, the removal of the iPad 2 from the Apple options list is significant.  It is not merely the new agreements with alternative models (I suspect most schools will opt for the iPad Air as we are doing) that have to be processed but also new cases (NutKase had an impressive stall at the Seville conference and although I don’t normally use this blog for the purpose of promoting brands I have to say I was struck by the student-designed protective iPad Air cover they demonstrated), new MDM set-ups and in some cases new insurance agreements too.  Most students and teachers will regard the replacement of their iPad 2 with an iPad Air as a good thing, but it is not without its issues for those administrating the switch.


Another recent development (and one that is still unwinding as I write this at the end of May) is the decision by Microsoft to throw in the towel on iPad apps and abandon the failed “Windows First” policy they stuck by under Steve Ballmer’s leadership.  The clearest manifestation of the policy change in Microsoft is the decision to release iPad versions of Excel, Word and PowerPoint.


Of these, Excel is the most significant as it is the only one that is demonstrably and undeniably the superior application in its field.  Those of us who use spreadsheets regularly, and especially those who require pivot table facilities and more advanced tools, will welcome the arrival of ExCel to the iPad.  This isn’t the case for the other two apps. Word is easily replaced by any number of word processing apps, and PowerPoint … well how can I put it and still be polite?  But the move does put a final nail in the coffin of those who continue to argue that the iPad is for content consumption and not for creating new stuff.  Quite obviously, Office Suite apps are intended to create new stuff.  In fact, Microsoft has configured the release so that the only way they will make money is from subscribers who buy the creation facility.  those like me who simply download the apps to be able to read what Office users send us pay not a penny.

The Great War on a 9.7-inch Screen

This year’s centenary commemorations of the start of World War One have had a conspicuous presence on television and in the printed media and as the summer approaches and we mark 100 years since the Old Contemptibles marched in France it seems fair to guess that the coverage in the mainstream media will be even more thorough.  Schools across Europe are no doubt giving thought to how best to reflect those happenings in the classroom.  Certainly, we at ACS are pondering the question of what are the most appropriate and effective ways of giving children a context in which to understand the Great War.

kitchener_posterFor people of my age, schooled in the seventies and eighties, the Great War belongs to the twilight of living memory.  I grew up in an environment where the oldest generation, including several of my relatives had experienced the war either as soldiers on the Western front and other theatres, or as members of the home front.  My grandfather, great uncles and several members of my extended family had all been soldiers.  One lost a thumb at Gallipoli; another had been gassed and passed away at an advanced age in the nineteen-seventies after a lifetime of lung problems; two great uncles were killed in action in 1918 and my grandfather survived the war only to die of illness in 1929.  Tins could be found in the bottom drawers of various cabinets in my childhood home containing medals, ribbons, coins, letters and military badges from the period.  Two cards, lined with black and a few sepia photographs spoke to the memory of the two great uncles who had lost their lives.  The war felt part of my personal history.

That feeling is not possible in the same way for the current school generation.  My first two years as a teacher, in 1992 and 1993, coincided with the last two years anyone I knew of invited surviving World War One veterans into the classroom to address the children.  I remember one surprisingly sprightly nonagenarian telling my students how he had joined up in time to see the last few months of the war at the Western front – and how he had got through it “without even a scratch”.  He, and all his comrades, are now long gone.  The last British Tommy, Harry Patch, died in July 2009, and the last WWI veteran of any nationality, Florence Green, passed away in February 2012.  Today’s children’s understanding of the war – and their ability to make sense of it and relate it to their experience of the world, will depend not on hearing live first-hand accounts, but on their ability to navigate the multitude of resources available to them, and the guidance we give them in doing so.

A major part of those resources exist in places these students will access via their iPads.  The temptation for many teachers will no doubt be to regard online resources as material for consultation and review. iPads are certainly useful tools for such consumption of reference material, and there are scores of apps available for reproducing, sometimes in beautifully presented forms, the pictures, posters, newspapers and moving images from the war’s four-year period.

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These content consumption apps also include trivia quizzes and Top Trumps-style virtual card games (see below) that ostensibly teach the consumer something about the machinery or weaponry used in the war (with aviation disproportionately represented to a conspicuous degree).

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Content consumption is also the driving force behind the many podcasts, television and film productions and even poetry recital and music albums currently being prominently displayed on the iTunes store, not to mention the books, audio books and games that take World War One as a backdrop or theme for the events or action they feature.  But there are also many opportunities for students to create appropriate content using the resources on the Great War. Posters in apps such as Trevor D’Arcy-Evans’ comprehensive World War One Posters (shown below) can be incorporated into student written work, artwork or combinations of graphics and images in presentations using Pages, Moodboard, Keynote, ArtRage, Puppetpals, iMovie and so forth.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 12.48.56Projects like these can be used to connect today’s students to the young men and women of 1914 who, informed and influenced by the media and social commentary of the day, joined up in their thousands to serve their countries.  Such work brings the period to life and allows today’s students to identify with and personalise the experience of the time they are studying.

More formal courses of study, some of which are connected to genuinely interactive work, are available via the iTunes U.  History and literature studies of the period of the Great War are offered, for example, by the University of Oxford (below).

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 13.04.43 The Great War is, therefore, extremely well represented in formats suited to the 9.7-inch (or 7.9-inch) iPad screens, and war resources available for iPads such as timelines, interactive archives, reference eBooks and the like can be incorporated into the modern classroom in a way that at least approaches the authenticity of my sprightly nonagenarian friend from 1993.  Imaginative use of authentic archive material also allows a multitude of perspectives to be understood, rather than one man’s personal memories, a caution Harry Patch himself mentioned in his only memoir, The Last Fighting Tommy.

For all those who did indeed get through the war unscathed – or at least in one piece, there are those who did not.  As I write this blog entry I have in front of me a letter written by one such member of the Fallen, my great uncle Syd.  The letter was written by Syd to his brother, Arthur, a private also on the front.  The envelope in which the letter was placed is addressed to M.G.C D Section, 106 Company, B.E.F. France, and is dated April 8th 1918.  In the letter, Syd says “…well, old boy, like you I am fed up with the whole thing, if it wasn’t for Bess and the children I should wish I was somewhere out of it but I think I shall trust to luck now I have had so much of it”.


Syd’s letter to his brother, Arthur. Written on April 8th 1918.
Syd was killed in action eight days later.

The letter was delivered to Arthur and it made it home to my family’s archive. Sadly, Syd did not make it home.  Stuck to the back of the envelope was the announcement of Syd’s death, killed in action at the age of 37, just eight days after he wrote the letter.

This letter has personal resonance for me and for my family, but there are equivalent stories in millions of families around the world, and there is deep and lasting learning associated with school projects that tap into such stories.  Clearly, we have a responsibility to ensure that events like the Great War can be understood, contextualised and made real for our students. Thanks to content creation apps and the efforts of teachers, iPads can have a useful role in that.

Top Tens

Recently, the Stephen Perse Foundation ‘s Daniel Edwards published a list of the top ten apps in use at his school’s two-year-old 1:1 iPad programme.  He noted that all ten apps were multipurpose apps, and he included in his list a description of how each app fitted in with the workflow developing at the school.

The list will make reassuringly familiar reading to FOMO-afflicted school leaders who have been dabbling or diving headlong into the world of 1:1 iPads, but it also indicates strongly how far the shift has been completed towards content creation.  With the arguable exception of iTunes U, every one of the’s top ten apps is primarily or exclusively designed to get users creating new content, not consuming existing content.  Here is Daniel’s list

Book Creator

Book Creator

Edmodo Edmodo Explain EverythingExplain Everything iMovieiMovie

iTunes U iTunes U

Keynote Keynote

Notability Notability


Showbie Showbie

Socrative 1.0 and 2.0 Socrative

Daniel’s list got me thinking about another list I realise I’ve been mentally compiling without actually writing it down.  In my many conversations with teachers and administrators in iPad schools across the country, I have noticed how the same questions are being asked and shared.  Not many of these questions have definitive answers – often it’s a case of personal preference or school philosophy, but here are some of the questions that are most commonly asked of me as an administrator in a school where our oldest 1:1 iPads programme is now entering its fourth year.

1.  What MDM do you use?

2.  Who pays for the iPads?

3.  What is your insurance structure?

4.  Do you recommend 1:1, shared iPads or a combination?

5.  What age range is the iPad best suited to?

6.  Do the iPads go home or stay at school?

7.  What eSafety issues do the presence of iPads raise?

8.  What training structure and timetable have you found most successful?

9.  Why iPads as opposed to Android or other devices?

10.  How do iPads best engage the students with the demands of the new curriculum (e.g. the demand for programming etc.)?

This list is by no means exhaustive. I could certainly add questions about how students save their work, what peripherals are most recommended, which subjects are best served or least well served by the apps on the App Store, how well iPads work with Google Apps schools and so forth. But following Daniel’s lead of naming only the top ten, these are the ones that are most often asked, and the ones to which I do find I have preferred answers borne of our experiences since we got started in January 2011.

I will endeavour to work my way through these questions and answers over the next few posts.